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5 Factors To Help You Determine Your Dream College

A college student sits outside on some steps. She leans over and smils at holds her phone in her lap.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Finding the right college can be hard. While essays, applications, letters of recommendation, and all else that comes along with applying to college can also be daunting, the most difficult part of the application process often doesn’t arrive until all of this is out of the way: choosing the right school.

After all, college is where you’ll spend the next four years of your life. 

As a high school student, it can often be difficult to imagine yourself in one place for so long, and it can be even harder to figure out what exactly you should be looking for. 

Confused, students often end up relying on the name prestige of a school to help them make their decision. Schools such as Harvard and Yale attract the attention of hundreds and thousands of eager students every year, all looking to attend a university that–in their mind–tops all others.

However, what these students soon find out more often than not is that this “dream school” is not all that they thought it was. The school that they read about in magazines, watched news about on TV, and cheered for in sports games ends up feeling weird: different than what they thought it would.

So a common follow-up question that presents itself after this discussion is: what should you base your search on?

If your dream college isn’t the one with the biggest name brand, the most selective acceptance rate, or the most advertised in the news, then what is it? 

Luckily for you, it’s not as difficult of a question as it seems! It turns out that researchers have done studies time and time again, measuring factors such as student happiness and engagement at their respective universities.

What they’ve continued to find is that there are a few concrete characteristics that you should look for in your perfect college. After all, college is a two-way street. Not only does the student have to suit the college, but the college has to suit the student in return. 

1. Class Size 

One of the most important variables to consider is the average class size at your future university. It is critical that you stop and ask yourself whether you would be more comfortable in a class of over 200 students or a more intimate class with less than 50.

Do you thrive in environments that leave ample opportunity for open discussion with classmates, or are you more comfortable in a setting where the professor is doing all the talking?

If you’re like me and you prefer a more interactive class where you get to do some of the talking yourself, it is often helpful to narrow down your college search to a few smaller schools.

With smaller classes, I’ve found through experience, you’ll find yourself engaging the most in open discussion. You may participate in socratic seminars, small group discussions, or some friendly debate among classmates. 

However if you’re like some of my friends and you enjoy listening to a professor lecture, then you might want to start looking at some larger schools. With a larger student population, these schools are more likely to have bigger class sizes: classes where there isn’t too much need for student discourse.

I don’t think I realized until I became a college student myself how big of a difference class size really makes. Finding a school with class sizes that fit your specific learning style may take some time and research.

You may have to search undergraduate population sizes at different universities or create an organized spreadsheet to sort these universities into small, mid-size, and large categories. But there is no doubt that doing so will be worth the effort. 

2. Student Organizations

This one isn’t a characteristic of the school so much as it is a characteristic of the students that attend the school. Student organizations are a great way to get involved on campus.

Usually started by students themselves, student organizations often span the interests of the entire student body, ranging from more mainstream ones like pre-med student groups to more eccentric ones like those focused on anime and manga. 

If there’s anything being in college for two years has shown me (especially during COVID), it’s how important it is to get involved in these organizations so you can meet students with shared interests and passions and so you can meet those who diverge in their views.

I’ve met most of my friends today through attending meetings for the student organizations that I’m in and getting more involved in officer positions. Of course, that’s hard to do at the school you’re attending if it doesn’t offer as many organizations that fit within your niche interests.

It’s always a good idea when conducting your college search to look up all the student organizations that a school offers. You may want to look up which student organizations are more active on campus and how many members each of them has.

Most colleges have a whole website dedicated to student organizations and the descriptions of what exactly these groups do. Looking those up before eventually deciding on what college you want to attend can make things easier, not only to find your dream school but also to get involved in campus life once you actually start attending.

3. Scholarships

If you’re looking for a truthful statement, funding school is hard. Not only is college tuition expensive, but other expenses such as living costs, textbooks, and spending on food also begin to pile up on top of that. It is important to thoroughly think about how exactly you’re going to fund your education.

One of the easiest ways to do this is simply to apply for scholarships! While it may at first seem too good to be true, a lot of schools and third party companies are looking to invest in driven students. By keeping on the lookout for these scholarships, you might find yourself having to pay significantly less money out-of-pocket than what you had expected.

There are three general types of scholarships that you might be able to apply for. The first general category is federal scholarships. These are mainly government funded scholarships that you can attain by filling out the FAFSA every year. They are usually need-based and awarded to applicants who aren’t able to fund their college otherwise. 

Many colleges also offer their own school-specific scholarships. Sometimes, applicants are automatically considered for the scholarships as soon as they apply to the school.

However, schools often have a separate application for more prestigious scholarships that applicants must fill out in addition to the school application, so do your research beforehand about what scholarships each school offers and how exactly they’re awarded.

These scholarships can be a mix of need-based and merit-based scholarships and are slightly different from the other two types because they are only awarded to students who actually end up attending that school. 

The third main type of scholarship are those awarded by third party organizations. These can be a combination of need-based and merit-based scholarships, but they generally have a large merit-based component.

Search engines like Niche can help with finding these kinds of scholarships as they are often funded by organizations you may have not heard of otherwise. If you find yourself with a bit of free time, take a moment to look up scholarships that might be available and are currently or are soon accepting applications.

Oftentimes, these require more extensive essays and are usually the most competitive, so make sure to get an ample head start on the application. Don’t start too close to the due date!

Although the process may seem intimidating at first, keep in mind that at the end of the day, you have nothing to lose by applying for a scholarship. Apply to as many as possible and do your best on every application.

Remember there is quite a lot of money on the line. Never be scared away by the statistics that may be listed on the scholarship website, and apply to even the most for reaching opportunities.

Not having to worry about where your college funds are coming from definitely allows you to broaden your college search, and you might even find yourself considering some more expensive schools that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford as a result.

Make sure to pay attention to not only the scholarships that each individual school offers, but also the scholarships that are widely available online. Apply to as many as possible because, as the cliché saying goes, you never know what could happen!

How To Decide Where You'll Attend

4. Social Life

School, despite its dictionary definition, is not just a time to learn new material and pick up on new skills. It’s also a time to branch out and meet new people.

Now, depending on what your social tendencies look like, this process may appear completely different for you than it will for a classmate, a best friend, or even a sibling. 

Inevitably, everybody has different social atmospheres that they are most comfortable in, and it is important for you to figure that out before deciding on a school that’s right for you.

If you describe yourself as a person who enjoys meeting new people and branching outside of your comfort zone, you may want to look at schools with a bustling social life, perhaps schools with bigger departments of fraternity and sorority life or more active sports teams. 

On the other hand, if you’re a more introverted person who enjoys quality one-on-one time with your classmates rather than time spent in big, loud groups, then you might find it useful to look into schools that fit that particular criteria. This may mean searching for schools that perhaps aren’t as focused on sports and Greek life

In my case, as a high school senior, I would say I was more on the soft-spoken side. I didn’t enjoy being in large groups and meeting too many new people at once. I often found it overwhelming when I was approached by too many new faces, and I preferred more intimate conversations with one friend at a time. 

I remember first starting my school search with some larger schools in the area, taking tours of some of the bigger campuses. What I found is that I felt oddly out of place, unable to fit into the bustling social atmosphere.

Discouraged but still determined, I continued my college search. I can confidently say I’m more than happy that I did. 

Today, as a student at a smaller, academically driven state university, I’m beyond satisfied with my decision. With the ability to make friends through smaller classes and meaningful one-on-one conversations, I know that this is where I thrive best.

Although I didn’t realize it as a senior in high school, it has made all the difference in my college experience. 

5. Location

The last factor I’ll touch on is location. It’s easy to get caught up in the mindset of wanting to leave your home state. With a newfound sense of independence, it is natural that you’ll crave some degree of freedom from home that high school didn’t and couldn’t afford you.

However, when you find yourself making big decisions about things like where you’ll live for the next four years of your life, take a step back and think about what kind of environment would match your specific interests, goals, and personality.

Some questions to ask yourself might be: Is this college located in a suburban or a city area? Which one would I prefer? What is the average age of the people living here? Would I usually spend my weekends inside or going out? Does this city offer me the opportunity to spend my weekends the way I want?

It’s also helpful to consider how you plan on transporting yourself from place to place. Would I be able to get around the city by walking? If not, do I have an alternative method of transport, like public transport?  How often would I want to visit home? How would I visit home? By plane? By bus? By car? Do I have the financial resources to pay for the trips that I plan to make home during the year?

All these are questions you may not have thought about yet but are necessary to ask yourself nonetheless. When conducting your college search, make sure you know what you would prefer to do outside the school environment.

With less classes and more flexibility, I’ve found that college offers more opportunity to explore the area that you’re living in. For me, a self-proclaimed foodie, I consciously searched for colleges that were in towns with big eateries and food scenes. As someone who loves the city but also enjoys quiet nights in, I narrowed down my college search to universities in towns that were close to but not exactly in the center of the city.

Valuing quality time with my family above all else, I made sure to choose a college that was close to my home, a college that offered me a small sense of independence but was also a short drive away from my house just in case I got homesick or wanted to see my family.

Now, as a sophomore in college, I couldn’t be more happy with my decision. 

A good idea might be to ask yourself: what would my ideal day out look like? Does the city in which I plan to attend college afford me the opportunity to spend my days how I would like?

If the answer to that question is no, you might want to reconsider your choice of location. Remember, college is a time of more freedom, more responsibility, and more independence. It matters not only what’s on campus, but what’s around the area as well!

While these five variables are five of the many factors that should be going into your college search, they are definitely–as proven by numerous studies and observations–some of the most important.

Instead of basing your college search purely off of name prestige or selectivity, narrow down your dream college search based on a combination of the above factors. You never know where you’ll find yourself!

What I’ve learned through my college search is that finding your dream college is hard, time-consuming, and overwhelming. It’s easy to give up. It’s easy to stop mid-way. And it’s especially easy to resort to name prestige in order to make your decision.

However, I encourage you to take the time to streamline your search and think about the question: what IS in a dream school, really? It will not only make the entire process easier, but also more rewarding at the end

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Author: Anisha Holla

Anisha Holla graduated as the valedictorian of her high school, and has since been named a National Merit Scholar, a National AP Scholar and a Coca-Cola Scholar. She is currently one of 20 Eugene McDermott Scholars at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she studies Psychology on the pre-med track. She loves to play her piano, flute and guitar; and one of her favorite hobbies is trying out new food places in the area. Holla is fluent in Spanish, Hindi and Kannada, and newly conversational in Mandarin. After graduation, she plans to either pursue a career in psychiatry or an MBA .