At this time of year, college choice is on the minds of many college- bound juniors and seniors.  It can be overwhelming with close to 4,500 degree-granting U.S. institutions.   While juniors are starting their college lists, soon most seniors will finally hear where they have been accepted.  For both groups, it is wise to carefully consider personal college priorities to find the best fit school and to avoid being one of three students who ends up transferring. Transfers are often costly in terms of time, money, and emotional drain.  Students should consider the following to determine their best fit college:

Cost of attendance: Don’t let sticker shock kill the deal.  Tuition for expensive schools may be dramatically reduced through scholarships, grants, and financial aid—this is particularly true for private schools with large endowments.  Before applying, parents and students should agree on the entire college budget, and then use the budget as a major element in deciding which schools to attend after acceptance and financial aid packages are awarded. If financial aid is awarded, be sure to fully understand the terms for renewals of the scholarships/aid in subsequent years.  Review graduation rates as well; nationwide only 39 percent graduate within four years.

School mission and emphasis:  Are the school’s values and vision appealing? Does it place an emphasis on research or teaching?  

Strength in program(s) of interest:  Compare academic programs, requirements, professors, and, if applicable, research opportunities.  Ideally the school should offer two to three majors of interest, in case the student changes his mind, or wishes to pursue a double major or minor degree.

Academic rigor:  According to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the majority of undergraduates are either “undermatching” or “overmatching” when they enroll in college. When considering schools, students should examine the average GPAs and test scores of admitted students, and make sure the rigor meets their desires or capabilities.

School size and average student –to-teacher ratios:  Campus populations vary greatly from 300 (Marlboro College) to 76,000 (Arizona State University).  Students have different appetites when it comes to size.  Bigger schools may offer greater numbers of programs, resources, and diversity, but there may be greater competition for attaining classes, internships, or research opportunities.  Smaller schools may offer a close knit community, greater individual support, and chances to stand out, but some find small schools too limiting.  Students also should consider class size. Do they prefer smaller classes where they can be more engaged or the anonymity in classes of 300?

Location/geography:  Factors to consider include distance from home, outdoor and cultural activities, and weather.  Proximity to a city facilitates visits from guest speakers and music performers, as well as access to employers and internships.  

Athletics:  Determine if the college is a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and if so, the team designation (Division I, II or III).  Division I schools place greater importance and financial support on team sports; this focus may be shared by administration and student body. Besides NCAA teams, most schools offer club sports or intramural teams, which allow students to  enjoy sports recreationally.

Campus Life:  Examine availability and support of clubs, study abroad programs, Greek life (does it dominate the campus vibe), and the political or religious vibe of campus life.  Consider the condition of campus facilities, technology and resources as well, – including  student support services to meet needs, and ensure success.

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Gut Feel:  A campus visit, especially when school is in session is the best way to figure out whether the school feels right.  Seeing the other students, or sitting in on a class can be very revealing; although a school may meet “fit” criteria, if it doesn’t feel right, it is probably not a good choice. College visits are the best way to get a “feel” for the campus, and to determine whether or not it is a good match.  

Take the time needed to determine and evaluate college fit criteria.  The better the college fit, the better the college experience.

Ferah Aziz is a college coach with launchphase2. Visit www. launchphase2.com or call 720-340-8111 to learn more about coaching for college bound students, and success coaching for college students. P. Carol Jones is the author of “Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able.” Visit www.towardcollegesuccess.com to read excerpts and to follow her blog.