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How to Choose the Best College for You

written by: Donna Clarke•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 12/2/2011

The perfect college or university selection is the key for a successful college experience. Public vs. private, academic and athletic scholarships, accessibility to airports, train stations and mass transit, transfer and drop out rates, courses offered, and safety are just a few prerequisites.

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    What You Want, What You Need

    The journey toward attending the college of choice can be both hopeful and harried, with triumphs and challenges. Yet having the proper tools in advance can help ensure an experience both you and your teenager can look back upon with satisfaction and joy.

    Once you have discussed your vision of the "perfect" college, it is time to study specifics. Remember, public vs private, large vs small, urban vs. rural, departmental majors, available minors, honor programs, athletic programs, distance from home, proximity to airports and train stations, ability to commute, campus safety as well as tuition and scholarship opportunities are all important factors to consider.

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    Cost & Scholarships

    Public vs. Private institutions: Applicants often choose only public universities due to a cost. However, with the right financial aid package, students can fare better at private institutions which are more likely to offer more in scholarships and grants for a desirable student. As such, research into athletic scholarships, merit packages, in county/state grants, sibling discounts, work-study funding, and need-based aid is well worth all the advanced effort!

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    Comfort & Class Size

    Being cognizant of comfort is a key component to a successful college career! Learning in a large lecture hall with the ambiance of the echoes of classes past, the mystique of an auditorium filled with a large group of students sharing any number of interests may be a substantial draw for some. Conversely, the intimacy of smaller classes and the feeling of familiarity which goes with knowing everyone by name might be more significant. Being aware of not only class size, but also transfer rates and drop out rates can be a tool in the final decision.

    A quiet, secluded campus, sprawling countryside, or perhaps an opportunity to live in the big city! With each choice consider crime rates, ability to commute, airport and train station locations, off campus shopping, mass transportation and hospitals. This decision is not just for the education...it is four years of life, and living!

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    Success Rates

    Be wary of buzz words! When looking into available majors and minors, be sure to double and triple check availability with department chairs. If you are considering, however remotely, the possibility of a post graduate education, determine the percentage of students gaining admission to the grad/law/medical school, etc. of their choice. Does this particular program offer a joint masters program? How old is the department? Do the professors have advanced degrees? Are the professors actively involved in the field professionally?

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    Safety First

    Now more than ever, safety should be a priority when deciding on a college. Does the campus have an emergency alert system in place? What is the response time for campus police? What is the complement of the campus police department? What were the major crimes over the past 5 years? Is the campus well lit at night? Is there a campus police escort service available at night? Do the dorms have security ready access? Are there panic buttons located throughout the campus? Are there orientation programs for incoming freshman with respect to safety protocols? When it comes to safety, an ounce of prevention is always best.

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    The Package

    Tuition and scholarship packages can be daunting. The best approach is to ask financial aid for a breakdown of what is available. Never be afraid to ask for more in your package, especially if a competing school to which you apply comes back with a better offer. Moreover, scholarships and grants are also available through unions, religious and civic organizations, and private corporations and sponsors.

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    Take a Tour

    It is important to note that scheduled tours show the most positive aspects of the school, as its purpose is to sell the school to the prospective student - and the parents!

    Whenever possible, visit the campuses independently and stroll around for your own self-guided tour. Chatting with students, faculty and staff is an excellent way to get to know the true inner workings of the college or university. Visit the eateries on and around the campus, the campus bookstore, and if possible campus security/safety. Most importantly, ask questions and write down the answers. Colleges blur together toward the end of the process, especially if they all fall into similar categories. Keeping good notes is an outstanding way to keep things clear and dialog fresh.

    Choosing the right college is never an easy decision to make, but with these considerations in mind you'll be well ahead of the game and on your way to many happy and productive college years.