5 Tips for Making the Best College Choice

University students walking and cycling on footpath in campus.

Visiting college campuses to decide which schools to apply to is an exciting part of the college journey. For many students, it’s the first taste of being around college students and observing daily life at a four-year university.

While seeing a campus in person is ideal, we know college visits can be expensive and demanding – luckily, there are online resources students can use to take virtual college tours these days, which can broaden the pool of schools you and your family can consider (You Visit and Campus Tours, for example). Some universities even offer programs that cover the costs of college visits (see the section about fly-in programs below).

If you and your family are in the exciting stage of building a list of colleges to apply to, we recommend you follow these tips to make it a balanced and personalized experience.


Start with in-state schools

In-state colleges and universities are a great place to start your search. For one, they’re easier to get to than out-of-state schools, offer in-state tuition prices, and you can often visit more than one during the same trip. State schools also might have honors colleges or merit scholarships that have an earlier deadline, so be sure to keep track of deadlines as you’re exploring.

First, make a list of all the institutions in your state. Then, make another list of what you’re looking for in your college experience. Do you envision yourself at a smaller or larger school? Do you prefer a city, suburban, or rural atmosphere? Which academic programs and opportunities are important to you? Do you have specific interests or passions — like hiking, volunteering, music — that you’d like to keep up or explore in college? Selecting a school that offers majors you’re interested in is important, but make sure you also consider undergraduate research opportunities and honors college programs if that’s something you may want to participate in down the line.

In terms of admissions, in-state students are more likely to be accepted over out-of-state students. We recommend that all college applicants apply to at least one or two in-state schools to boost the likelihood of having multiple admissions.


Apply for fly-in programs

Many selective colleges have fly-in programs that allow you to visit the campus for free if you are selected. Here is a list of fly-in programs and their corresponding deadlines. Attending fly-in programs shows demonstrated interest in a college and allows you to learn more about their programs from current students and professors.


Make sure you’re asking the right questions

When touring or researching a college campus, there is often an overload of information presented to students and families. It might be intuitive to look into the academic programs offered as well as the student life and culture, but there are more long-term factors to consider when picking a college as well. Here are some important questions to ask:

  • What financial aid opportunities and resources are available at the institution?
  • Does the school have a no loan policy?
  • How does the college support first generation students?
  • Do students at the school have ample opportunities to pursue internships? How about paid internships?
  • What kind of free or low-cost entertainment is available on campus?
  • What kind of study abroad programs does the school offer?
  • What is the graduation rate?
  • What kind of academic support does the school have for a struggling student? Is this help free?
  • What kind of mental health supports does the college have?
  • What is the employment rate of recent graduates?
  • Does the school have a thriving network of alumni who are accessible to meet with?


Have a balanced college list and make sure you like all of the schools on your list

All students applying to college should have options with a range of acceptance rates that they are excited about – that means ALL of the schools on the list. Oftentimes, when a student meets the GPA and standardized test score criteria for a selective college in particular, they think that they will certainly get into that school. However, the reality is, most of the candidates applying to highly selective schools meet the academic criteria but due to a low acceptance rate, many qualified candidates will be turned away.

If you have high grades and test scores, we recommend you apply to two to three schools with an acceptance rate of 25 percent or less, three to four schools with an acceptance rate of 25-60 percent, and two to three schools with an acceptance rate of over 60 percent.  Make sure all of these schools are a good fit for you so you will succeed at whichever school you end up attending, including some of your “thrive” schools. Check out the Colleges that Change Lives website to learn more about some incredible schools that are committed to helping students thrive and reach their full potential.


Apply early action, rolling, and priority whenever possible

Many highly selective schools have early action, non-binding application deadlines (click here for definitions of these terms) – we recommend that students take advantage of these opportunities since they offer an edge in admissions rates. Even if the school has a single-choice early action deadline, students can often apply early action to state schools as long as they’re not applying to two binding options.

If you do apply for a binding early decision opportunity, we recommend using BigFuture’s net price calculator to determine whether or not the school will be affordable for you before making a binding commitment.

Remember that exploring colleges should be fun and exciting – we wish you and your family the best of luck in your college choice journey.




 The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is dedicated to advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need. Since 2000, the Foundation has awarded almost $250 million in scholarships to nearly 3,200 students from 8th grade through graduate school, along with comprehensive academic advising, career pathway counseling and other support services. The Foundation has also provided $125 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.