High school students who already have a college major in mind can choose a college that has a strong program for their desired field of study. But for the many students who are undecided about their college major, choosing a college can feel more difficult.
However, from my vantage point as a high school counselor, I can tell you that it’s totally fine to go to college without a declared major. At many schools, students don’t have to declare a major until the end of their sophomore year.
Does your student have a desire for easily accessible teachers?
Prefer small or large classes?
Small, close-knit population or prefer to blend into a crowd?
Are they looking for a student culture that is competitive or more collaborative?
Are they interested in a historically women's college? (There are currently 34 active women's colleges in the U.S. but only four all-male colleges still in existence.)
Is it important to attend college with students who share an ethnic or racial heritage (e.g., an HBCU — Historically Black Colleges and Universities — or Hispanic-Serving Institution)?
Would your student prefer a school with a specific major track or the ability to take classes and create their own major?
Do they have multiple careers in mind and majors that align with each career?
Are they looking for rigorous courses?
Freedom or structure with picking classes?
Prefer a two-year or four-year college?
Is it easy to transfer? Many for-profit colleges do not have easy (if any) transferability (see transferology for more information).
Would they like to live in a certain city, state, or region?
What kind of campus are they looking for: urban, suburban, or rural?
If pursuing an internship that could lead to networking and job opportunities, is this a place your student could see themselves living in the future?
Distance from home — prefer to be close or far away?
Prefer that most people commute or live on campus?
Do they want to attend Division 1 athletic events?
Play a sport or intramural on campus?
Participate in Greek life?
Is religious life an important factor in choosing a college?
Do they prefer a college where religion/faith is not emphasized?
Some colleges affiliated with a specific faith tradition don't have a big emphasis on the religion, and students of any faith practice (including none) may attend, but students do have to take 1–2 religion or theology courses.
When considering all of these factors, which matters most?
Your student should highlight the ones that matter, then list them from most to least important.
They then align their priorities with colleges that offer the highest values.
Many private colleges have more competitive pricing than in-state schools because scholarship and grant money is available to a wider array of students. Make sure to use Net Price Calculators; don't let the tuition sticker price deter applying.
Community colleges can be a much more affordable option for students to take their first two years of general education classes. Annual tuition at a community college is typically around $3,000 compared to in-state tuition costing $10,000–15,000 and private college tuition ranging from $15,000–50,000.
Community college also provides most students the cost saving of living at home compared to the $10,000–15,000 price tag of living in a residence hall with a campus meal plan.
There are about 4,000 colleges in the United States. I advise most students looking at four-year colleges to apply to 3–8 colleges. This list is made up of 1–3 target (also known as "match") schools, 1–3 reach schools and 1–3 safety schools (terms explained here).
The safety schools will most likely provide the best scholarship opportunities. If cost is a high priority, your student should consider applying to more safety schools for more appealing financial aid packages.
College Board Big Future has a tool called Super Match that students can use to determine which colleges and universities have the criteria they consider most important (whether they're seniors getting ready to apply or younger students just starting the college search process). Students should review results with parents, school counselors, teachers and friends.
Don't Forget a Campus "Visit"
If possible, your student should visit the colleges they're considering applying to or when weighing their final choice after admission offers are in.
Some colleges have apps for self-guided, in-person tours (call the admissions office or look on the website). StriveScan hosts virtual college fairs — find a list of state-by-state upcoming events here. And your student can virtually tour hundreds of campuses on YouVisit.
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Paige Buttels is a college/career counselor at a public high school in suburban Chicago and works with parents and students as a member of My College Planning Team (mycollegeplanningteam.com). She holds a master’s in counseling from Northern Illinois University and bachelor’s in psychology from Illinois State University.