college comparison
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What college should I go to? An Introduction

Congratulations on being accepted to college! Now, you might be wondering, “What college should I go to?” 

Doing some college comparison exercises may help narrow down your decision. In this article, we’ll help you compare colleges and consider different factors. That way, you can learn how to choose a college that’s right for you. 

This article is the third part of our College Finder Series. The College Finder Series is designed to provide guidance from beginning to end of the college application process. This article will help you complete the final step of this process: making your college decision. We’ll discuss how to make the best college choice and find the right college for you. (We’ll get to the enrollment process later!)

Part I of the College Finder Series covered how to tackle the college search and find the right college options that best fit you. Then, the second part of the College Finder Series covered how to build a balanced college list that includes safety, target, and reach schools. Part 2 of the Series even included a sample college list with theoretical college options.

Part III of the College Finder Series

This article, the third part of the series, is intended to help you compare colleges where you were accepted and make your final college choice. Take your college selection seriously, as it will affect the next four years of your life and beyond. This guide will help you compare colleges, build a college comparison spreadsheet, and, finally, make your college decision.

The college comparison process is the fun part of your college search. You’ve done the work of applying and getting accepted—now, it’s time to compare colleges and find your perfect school. When you compare colleges, you are looking for your perfect fit—a school whose programs, campus culture, and extracurricular offerings match your needs. 

As you compare colleges, think about your needs and priorities. Consider every aspect of a school, no matter how insignificant it may seem. After all, you’ll be living, sleeping, eating, socializing, and learning in this environment for the next four years. So, take the college comparison process seriously. The question of “what college should I go to” may be the most significant decision of your life.

So, are you asking yourself “What college should I go to?” Here are some tools to help you compare colleges. 

How to choose a college that’s right for you

The question of “Which university should I choose” is an important decision that requires time and organization to answer. Before you compare colleges, get organized. In this process, you should use the same kind of detail and care that helped you begin your college search. Organization will go a long way in helping you make a college choice.

When deciding how to choose a college, start by compiling information. For each school, learn about college majors, financial aid and scholarship packages, college setting, college size, college rankings, and more. That way, you can compare colleges more effectively and make the best college choice possible. 

college comparison
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Also, keep in mind that everyone has different needs when it comes to the college process. When you ask yourself, “What college should I go to?,” consider adding on “What college should I go to that will make the most sense for me specifically?” 

The right college choice for your friends may not be the right college choice for you, and that’s okay! As you compare colleges, remember to center your own needs. 

Four questions to ask yourself when comparing colleges:

  1. What college should I go to that will best lead me toward my professional or academic goals?
  2. If finances are a top concern, what college should I go to?
  3. What college should I go to that will offer me the best academic and social support?
  4. To ensure I prioritize my mental health and wellbeing, what college should I go to?

When choosing a college, consider your long-term professional or academic goals, the overall cost, any short-term support, and your mental wellbeing. If there are other factors that are important to you (spirituality/religion, distance from family, etc.), keep those in mind when making your college choice. 

There are many ways to help you determine how to choose a college. Think critically about your own needs, and discuss them with those closest to you. Then, as you compare colleges, keep these needs in mind. 

College Comparison- Helpful Tools to Compare Colleges

There are plenty of “college compare” tools that can show you how to choose a college. Each college comparison tool is a bit different, but all should help you make your college choice. In this section, we’ll go over five of the most popular college comparison tools that compare colleges across the nation.

We’ve included details about the various college comparison tools below. Go with the tool that you feel best helps you compare colleges. That way, you can make the right college choice.

1. College Scorecard

The College Scorecard is a “college compare” tool from the U.S. Department of Education. With this college comparison tool, you can search and compare colleges, their fields of study, costs, admissions, results, and more “college compare” factors.

Use this “college compare” tool to compare colleges by entering the name of any school in the search bar under the “Search Schools” tab. From there, you will be shown a scorecard with various stats about that school. In the upper right corner of the scorecard, you will see a checkmark. Click on that checkmark to compare this school with others. Repeat this process for all the schools you want to compare. You can add up to 10 schools for college comparison. 

When you have added all the colleges you want to compare, click on “Ready to Compare” at the bottom of the screen. This will take you to the college comparison page that can help you decide how to choose a college. You can also use this process to compare fields of study.

2. Niche

Niche is a site that can help you compare colleges simply. With the Niche “college compare” tool, you can compare colleges side by side to find the right school for you. You can add up to four schools to compare college cost, college size, and test scores. All you have to do is type in the name of the college you want to view, and it will take you to that school’s page.

On the profile page, Niche offers a report card with ratings for categories such as academics, diversity, athletics, student life, campus food, and safety. You may need to create a free account in order to utilize the full scope of this college comparison tool. 

3. BigFuture

BigFuture is a college comparison tool powered by CollegeBoard. This “college compare” tool functions like the other previously mentioned sites. Using BigFuture, you can search specific schools and add them to a list. This can help you compare colleges quickly and effectively. 

This tool gives you the option to compare colleges based on four categories: location, college major, college type, and campus life. Each category also has various subcategories. Using these four categories, you can filter colleges by specific criteria that matter to you. 

4. Campus Reel

The CampusReel college comparison tool is great for helping students decide how to choose a college when they have narrowed their college choice down to two options. Start by entering the two schools you want to compare and click “Compare Colleges.”

CampusReel offers a “college compare” guide that analyzes both the quantitative (hard data) and qualitative (soft data) differences between two schools. This college comparison is particularly good at understanding the cultural differences between colleges. It uses student videos to capture the “vibes” of a campus. These videos can help you make a college choice sooner, since you get to actually see and hear what it would be like to attend that school.

5. CollegeAdvisor College Search

Our app is an excellent guide to reference when you ask yourself, “what college should I go to?” This CollegeAdvisor resource provides detailed information on the schools you are interested in. It even provides a succinct report card that grades the school on various criteria. 

Our College Search Tool is the perfect resource for you to reference when creating your college comparison spreadsheet (more on that later). The data provided on this site can help you build college comparison profiles. This can help you determine how to choose a college.

How to Compare Colleges

CollegeAdvisor has an excellent webinar on how to choose between multiple schools. Take a look at that video for more tips on how to compare colleges!

What college should I go to: College Comparison with Data Collection

The first step in the college comparison process is data collection. When you compare colleges, you want to compare similar sets of variables across schools to find a perfect college match. 

You may have already gathered some information during a college visit or during your initial college search. That’s a great start. Now, we need to take that information and organize it with a “college compare” tool that will help you make your final college selection and begin the college enrollment process. Answering the question of “what college should I go to” is about to get easier!

What data should you collect to compare colleges? At a minimum, you should gather information on college setting, college size, academics, and financial aid. Put all this information into an easy-to-evaluate form so you can compare colleges at a glance. 

There are multiple methods you can use that show you how to choose a college. When you compare colleges, choose the method that makes the most sense to you. This will make your college choice easier.

how to compare colleges
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What college should I go to: College Comparison Methods

Next, decide what method you’d like to use to compare colleges. Some college comparison methods include index cards or whiteboards. Some students create a stack of index cards with college comparison information written on them. Other students use a whiteboard to organize their college comparison info. You should use whatever method helps you synthesize information best.

One key thing is to gather information from reputable sources. There are several resources out there with college comparison tools that you can utilize in your search for a college match. You can also find articles that provide guidance on how to choose a college. For example, if you are interested in college rankings, use the same ranking source to compare colleges. On that note, pay attention to the type of college rankings you look at. A school may not be highly ranked overall, but the specific department you are interested in may be highly ranked.

You may also have much of this “college compare” information already noted from your college search process. Asking yourself “what college should I go to?” during the initial college search is a great way to become familiar with a school as you make your college decision. 

College comparison methods are diverse. Finding the right college match is a long process that begins even before you sit down to compare schools.

What college should I go to: Compare Colleges with Others’ Input

Finally, ask for help. Many people will have great advice on how to choose a college. Talk to family and friends, and reach out to alumni from each of the schools on your “college compare” list. This can help you make your college choice. 

Remember, the final answer to your question of “What college should I go to” is up to you, and not anyone else. That being said, it can be helpful to talk through the college choice options with others. 

Building a College Comparison Spreadsheet

One of the best organizational tools to help you compare colleges is a college comparison spreadsheet. A college compare and contrast tool like a college comparison spreadsheet is an easy way to highlight all important data. 

A college comparison spreadsheet can help you find the right college for you because you can tailor it to your particular interests. For example, if you love the warm weather and hate cold climates, location will be a key factor in your college decision. 

Knowing how to choose a college that’s right for you will become easier with a spreadsheet. Let’s dig into how you create your college comparison spreadsheet so you can start to compare colleges. 

college comparison spreadsheet
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First, create a file in Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, or any similar application, and title it something straightforward like “What College Should I Go To?” You can even make a simple table in a text editing app, like this one.

Next, in the first row, create your table headings in each column. The table headings can fall into three broad categories.

Table heading categories

  1. General info: Include basic information such as the name of the college, college setting or location, college size, public/private, and college rankings.
  2. Academic infoTuition amount per year, financial aid award amounts (if applicable), graduation requirements, campus amenities, and other relevant academic information. If you are interested in a specific program or college major, make a column heading to note if each school offers that college major.
  3. Personal info: Include categories for factors that are important to you. For example, do you want to join a sorority or fraternity? Look into whether each college offers Greek life. Do you love the beach? Make a heading for noting proximity to a coast. Love art? Note whether each school is in a city with a lively art scene. These column headings can be as nuanced and silly as you want. They should be tailored to you so you can answer the question, “What college should I go to?”

Check out our example of a college comparison spreadsheet below. For this example, we assumed out-of-state tuition (not including housing or extra expenses), inserted hypothetical financial aid award amounts, used a hypothetical college major interest, and looked at the college rankings for undergraduate programs.

What college should I go to?

College NameCollege SettingTuition/yearFinancial Aid/yearCollege SizeCollege MajorCollege RankingsAmenities
UCLACA$27,608$16,180~31,000film#20proximity to hollywood
NorthwesternIL$62,391$50,000~8,200radio/tv/
film
#9great theater
VanderbiltTN$58,130$45,430~7,000cinema/media arts#14small program
UPennPA$56,212$51,025~10,000cinema/media#8small program
ColumbiaNY$62,570$57,300~6,200film#33proximity to the NY film/theater industry

This table is a very simple example of what you can include in your college comparison spreadsheet. Feel free to make this spreadsheet as detailed as you’d like. For instance, you can subtract the financial aid amount from the tuition amount and have a column for out of pocket cost. You can be more specific in the college setting category to include rural/urban or proximity to family. You can also add a column for college visits, to mark notes you may have taken during a college visit tour. The more you include, the more this tool can help you compare colleges. 

Generally, there are 5 important things to include on a college comparison spreadsheet. These are 1) College Major, 2) Cost, 3) College Setting, 4) College Size or Class Size, and 5) Campus Facilities and Amenities. The next part of this article on college selection will discuss these five most important things to consider when choosing a college.

Stay organized

“College compare” exercises like this table help to make the data clearer. This lets you answer the “What college should I go to” question. You undoubtedly will have multiple college options. So, a table like this can show you how to choose a college that’s right for you.

Check out our other resources available to students who are choosing colleges. We have helpful articles on topics such as choosing between a Liberal Arts and Pre-Professional college, finding your dream school, and a guide for first-generation college students.

5 most important things to consider when choosing a college

As we discussed, making your college selection is a big decision. However, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. So far, we have discussed helpful college comparison tools, tips to compare colleges, and how to build a college comparison spreadsheet. 

Now, let’s dive into the 5 most important things that will help you answer the question, “What college should I go to?” 

Read on to learn about the importance of the following “college compare” factors to find the right college. Then, be sure to add them to your college comparison spreadsheet: 

  1. College Major
  2. College Costs, Financial Aid, Scholarships
  3. College Setting
  4. College Size & Class Size
  5. Campus Facilities & Amenities

College Major

The first factor that you should consider in your college comparison is your future major. At each school you’ve been accepted to, check out what majors are offered and what opportunities related to your major exist. 

Your interests may have changed from when you started the college search. Now, you may be ready to make your college decision and wondering, “What college should I go to based on majors?” 

Whether you feel confident about your college major or are undecided, we can help you compare colleges and figure out how to choose a college that’s right for you. 

What college should I go to if I know what I want to major in? 

Let’s try a “college compare” exercise to see how you might approach the college decision. 

Say you want to major in Secondary Education. On your college comparison spreadsheet, what education-related programs are available for each college choice? How do they align with your goals? 

college comparison; college majors
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For example, many students majoring in education find it difficult to study abroad because of their student teaching responsibilities. If studying abroad interests you, you might wonder, “What college should I go to where I can do both?” 

In this case, you might consider The College of New Jersey. In the TCNJ Global Student Teaching Program, college majors in education can complete seven weeks of their student teaching requirement at an international school. Students can travel to Europe, South America, or as far as South Africa. 

So, as you consider your college options, think about the details. What programs speak to you? What matters the most to you within your academic studies? If you can answer these questions, you’ll be in great shape. 

What college should I go to if I don’t know what I want to major in? 

Keep in mind that many students make a college decision without knowing what they want to study, and that’s okay! Not only do many students make their college choice without declaring a major, many others switch majors throughout their undergraduate careers. 

Wondering how to choose a college that’s right for you without a major in mind? In this case, focus on the schools on your college comparison spreadsheet that offer a variety of programs. For example, the University of South Florida offers more than 200 majors and concentrations across three campuses. Your college choice might come down to making your college selection based on which schools have the most variety. 

“How to choose a college” webinar

In one webinar we hosted about how to choose a college, student panelist McKenzie Murray shared her broad interests and experience considering majors in her college comparison process. A Cornell University undergraduate (Class of 2024), McKenzie is “a human development major with minors in policy analysis, global health, and possibly education.”

When it came time to make answer the question, “What college should I go to,” the first thing McKenzie considered was what majors were offered in her college comparison spreadsheet:

“Whatever you want to be for your career, you need to make sure that you’re picking a major that can get you there, or at least taking the classes that can get you there. Majors are broad. Even if you’re undecided…an important thing is to look and see if they have multiple programs that you might be interested in.” 

Although McKenzie’s college comparison was initially based on her college decision to choose a major based on pre-med programs, she wanted programs that fulfilled pre-med requirements while also offering a broad range of college majors. 

College Costs, Financial Aid, Scholarships

When you compare colleges and consider your college options, another key “college compare” factor is cost. For instance, your college choice might come down to two schools. However, if you find that one is far more expensive in your college comparison, it will impact how you answer the question, “What college should I go to?” 

college comparison; financial aid
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If you are wondering how to choose a college based on cost, you can compare colleges based on various attributes. These include in-state versus out-of-state tuition, financial support, and college match factors like whether or not you are a first-generation college student

What college should I go to if I got into a few in-state and out-of-state schools?

If your focus is on affordability when you compare colleges, take a look at your in-state and out-of-state options. This can narrow down your college comparison. While private universities charge the same for all students, public universities offer lower tuition rates for in-state residents. For example, the previously mentioned College of New Jersey costs $16,667 a year for in-state tuition, versus $28,645 for out-of-state students. 

What college should I go to if I need financial assistance? 

Many students need financial assistance to meet the rising costs of higher education. If money is a concern, there are many options for you to consider when you compare colleges. As we mentioned, public universities are more affordable for students who are already state residents. However, private universities often offer more financial aid. 

In your college comparison, consider affordability on a school-by-school basis. While many “college compare” tools will let you sort schools by private versus public, you want to think about each school individually. According to US News, “It’s a common misconception that private institutions aren’t accessible to certain groups, like low-income and first-generation students…In fact, some private colleges, like many Ivy League schools, meet students’ full demonstrated need.” For example, the cost of tuition at Princeton University in New Jersey is covered for families who make $160,000 or less.

What college should I go to if I’m trying to find the right college as a first-generation student?

When you make your college choice, understanding how the schools on your college list define “first-generation students,” or “FLi,”  is key. 

If you are a first-gen college student, you may want to compare colleges from your college selection based on financial aid and other opportunities offered for FLi. Before you do so, ensure you understand the differences in how your college matches define “first-generation students.” 

For example, Brown University defines a first-generation college student as “any student who may self-identify as not having prior exposure to or knowledge of navigating higher institutions such as Brown.” On the other hand, Northwestern University defines FLi as ‘the first in their families to graduate from a four-year college or university.” 

Understanding how your college selection defines FLi will help you find the right college. Learn more about how to choose a college as a first-generation student from CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert Kiki!

College Setting

Think back to when you first asked yourself, “What college should I go to?” How much did college setting factor into your college list? 

As you compare colleges, you’ll want to think about college setting. For most students, the college search centers around several geographic areas. For instance, maybe you want to stay in-state and find a college near your hometown. Or, maybe you hope to move to New York, California, Chicago, or another area for your undergraduate years. 

In order to find the right college, include as many aspects of college setting in your college comparison as possible. Many “college compare” tools can also help with this process. 

college setting
Photo by Juni Nguyen on Unsplash

If you see yourself at a smaller college, you can then compare colleges based on the location, distance from home, and potential cultural/legal differences between smaller schools on your college list. This will help you make the right college choice for you. 

Let’s take a closer look at these aspects of college setting so you can compare colleges with confidence.

When you first thought about how to choose a college, did you set your sights on big cities? While many students are drawn to city schools when making their college choice, there are many reasons to stay open  to urban, rural, and suburban schools as part of your college comparison. 

If you compare colleges according to college setting, remember that you will spend most of your time on campus (and possibly in the surrounding community). However, not all schools have the same relationships with their surrounding areas. If you’re asking yourself, “What college should I go to if I want to be in a city, but still have an enclosed campus?” you might make a different college choice than someone who doesn’t mind a dispersed city campus. 

Your college major may also impact your college comparison. Look at your college choices, and think about how they relate to your chosen college major. This will make more of a difference with some majors than others. For instance, if you aim to study environmental science, you may find the right college in a sprawling rural setting with plentiful college options for hands-on experience.

No matter where your college comparison takes you, going away freshman year can be a challenge. So, it is important to consider the distance between you and your support networks. If you are unsure of how you will handle the transition, or know that you want to stick within driving distance of home, you can often find the right college without going far! Make sure your college comparison spreadsheet includes dream, reach, target, and safety schools within driving distance. 

College Visits and College Setting

College visits can make a huge difference in the college search. So, try to visit each of your top college options in person. Don’t focus on prestige or college rankings—instead, think critically about whether you could see yourself thriving on a certain campus. 

Even if your process for how to choose a college is largely based on setting, your idea of something and the actual experience may not align. If you have the opportunity, an in-person college visit can help you get a feel for the campus, broader environment, the distance from home, and your sense of place.

If you can’t make an in-person college visit to help with your college comparison, don’t worry! Many schools offer virtual college visits, where you can get a feel for many aspects of campus life. Your physical environment, academic environment, and peer environment are all aspects of setting that can help you compare colleges. Keeping an open mind to college matches will help you answer the all-important question, “What college should I go to?”

Consider political climate

Finally, how to choose a college based on setting may come down to the different cultural and legal differences between different regions of the US. College rankings aside, when you compare colleges, you should consider not only the political climate, but how state-by-state and federal legislation might impact you as an individual– particularly if you are a woman and/or person of color and/or LGBTQ. 

For example, the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade is forcing U.S. students of all genders to rethink their college plans. While a school in Ohio with great college rankings might initially be high in your college search when you compare colleges, you might cross it off of your college comparison list for good as laws change. 

When you ask “What college should I go to?” your safety and right to exist matter. 

College Size & Class Size

Let’s return to our question of “What college should I go to?” and think about size. 

As you continue the process of how to choose a college, you’ll also consider college size. This is another top college comparison factor. Do you want to attend a large research university, or will you be happier at a small liberal arts school? 

college size
Photo by Roel Dierckens on Unsplash

You can often find data about college size online, including the total college enrollment for each school. On many “college compare” tools, you can also sort results by college size. 

Another important part of your college comparison is not only college size, but class size. Have you thought about the type of learner you are and how your experience in the classroom can help you compare colleges? 

Reflect on past learning environments

Think back to the classroom settings where you felt you learned best. Were they smaller, seminar style classes? Or do you do better in larger classes, or on campuses where you can blend in? 

When you compare colleges, schools with the largest college enrollment will have very different campus life, where some students feel like small fish in a big pond. A bigger college size also means a larger student-to-faculty ratio. At the same time, college choices with larger enrollments often have more funds. This can lead to bigger facilities and more opportunities. 

As you hone in on how to choose a college that’s right for you, remember that college requires a lot more independence and self-ownership over learning than high school. It’s important to make a college choice that will allow you to flourish! 

Campus facilities and amenities

The final important factor to help you answer the question of “What college should I go to” is what facilities and amenities are available. You’ll spend a lot of time on campus, and you want to be comfortable in your home away from home!

In your college comparison spreadsheet, what do you know about residence hall availability? Are there singles for freshmen, or just doubles and suite-style living? Is there a cost difference based on the type of hall? Are there communities for like-minded students?

You should also consider dining halls and restaurants, especially if you have any dietary restrictions. Most campuses have Kosher, vegetarian, gluten-free, and other options nowadays, but since you will be eating three meals a day there, it’s important to check in advance. 

You may not be a recruited athlete for your university, but are you interested in playing intramural sports or engaging in other extracurricular activities? As you go through your college comparison, make note of recreation opportunities, on-site services, career services, and student activities. 

Finally, when you answer “What college should I go to,” you are not only choosing a school, but a community. Who are the human resources you can call on? Are there mentoring programs for students? Is there a professor you look up to, whose work you are familiar with or want to learn more about? Does the school provide free or affordable counseling and mental health services for students?

So, which university should I choose?

Each of the factors listed above will impact your college comparison. Of course, some of these “college compare” factors will matter more for certain students. However, you should consider all of these aspects to some degree, as they intersect with one another to create your unique experience.

college comparison; what college should I go to?
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For example, you might have been accepted to UCLA with a full scholarship. However, if you call Vermont home, you will have to fly home for breaks and holidays, which means there are still costs to consider. At the end of the day, answering “what college should I go to” is a personal decision, but knowing what to look for can help!

The Final College Decision – Conclusion

In this article, we focused on how to choose a college based on five important factors. As we explored, there is a lot to consider as you compare colleges. Be strategic and organized in your college search. Various “college compare” tools can help you see key features of different schools at a glance. Using a college comparison spreadsheet can help you focus on factors beyond college rankings to answer the question, “What college should I go to?” 

With so many ways to compare colleges beyond college rankings, figuring out how to choose a college that’s right for you can feel impossible. What if your college comparison leads you to choose the wrong school? 

Rest assured– there is no wrong school! If you organize your college search and consider which factors you find most important as you compare colleges, you can have a great experience wherever you go. 

Only you know how to answer the question, “Which university should I choose?” Once you make your college decision, check out our Guide to College Enrollment as well as our College Packing List to get you even closer to that first day of class! 

This guide was written by Ciara Ayala and D. Lagomarsino. No matter what stage you are at in your college search, CollegeAdvisor.com is here to help. We’ve created a wide range of guides, like our College Finder Series, to help you navigate the college admissions process from building your school list all the way to packing for your freshman fall. For more specialized guidance on finding your college match, get started today with your free account or schedule an advising consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.