Selecting a College: A Checklist Approach

October 29, 2012 Comments Off on Selecting a College: A Checklist Approach

Finding, selecting and applying for the right college or university is an important and sometimes tough assignment that many high school students and their parents have to face. It involves letter writing, telephoning, research, weighing alternatives, and plain hard thinking . But with planning and a step-by-step approach, chances of making a good decision are high.


Starting With a List of Objectives

Selecting a college has lasting effects: what students become four years later is influenced by which college they choose, and how they go about getting into it once they have selected it. No two colleges are exactly alike, and some are very different. There are more than 3,000 colleges, universities, technical institutes, junior colleges, seminaries, and other institutions of higher education in the United States .

A good beginning in selecting a college is to make a list of objectives, both educational and personal. High school courses need to be planned early with college entrance requirements in mind. The purpose is not to make decisions about a course of study that may turn out to be premature, but to keep the options open until such decisions can be made. The areas of educational and personal interest that students most frequently cite as important in selecting a college include the following:

  •  Location  (state, city, region) 
  • Type of institution (two-year community college, four-year university, etc.)
  • Enrollment by sex 
  • Religious affiliation, if any 
  • Enrollment size 
  • Academic calendar Campus environment 
  • Majors or course offerings 
  • Housing (on-campus, off-campus) 
  • Cost – Financial aid 
  • Student activities 
  • Athletics 
  • General academic reputation 
  • Social life 
  • Entrance requirements 
  • Teaching reputation or ability of faculty

Obviously, not all of these items will be of high priority, but using them as a checklist helps to specify the range of choices. Although students may want to make changes or modifications in the list as they review colleges, it is important not to eliminate any of these areas until students know which are essential and which are not. Even then, it is quite possible that no college will meet all of an individual’s needs.

Using Computer Programs and Guidebooks

The computer is an excellent tool in the college selection process. The College Board’s College Explorer, Peterson’s College Selection Service for Four-Year Colleges, and Peterson’s Selection Service for Two-Year Colleges are computer programs that assist students in locating colleges with the features they want. A complete summary can be displayed on the screen, or a list of colleges that match the students’ requirements can be printed for later reference. Many high school guidance offices and public libraries now offer these services. If the service is not available, the same information can be obtained, with a little effort, from the following commercial guidebooks:


College counselors recommend these standard guides, which are updated annually. They differ in style and content, and some go beyond facts and statistics to provide “inside” information gathered from students and alumni.

Acquiring More Information

After drawing up a list of preferred colleges, students are ready to gather information and explore their choices in depth. The more information they acquire, the more likely they will make a good decision. Making a file on each college and keeping copies of correspondence, applications, personal notes, financial aid information, and names of personal contacts and conversations with people on campus can serve as excellent sources for making the final choice.

The primary sources for gathering information on colleges include the following:

COLLEGE CATALOGS-basic source of information about a college containing detailed information on admission procedures and policies, academic and degree requirements, costs, student life, and financial aid. Available directly from the college, or sometimes from a high school counselor, school library, or public library.

– COLLEGE REPRESENTATIVES-students may meet with representatives from colleges, such as the director of admissions and admissions officers, to obtain more information or answer individual questions.

– COLLEGE VISITS-campus visits are one of the most effective means to determine if the college is the right one (COLLEGE-BOUND DIGEST, 1983). Many colleges provide campus tours and programs which give an excellent opportunity to get a feeling of size and atmosphere. Ideally, these visits can be combined with an admissions interview.

– COLLEGE STUDENTS, FACULTY, OR RECENT ALUMNItalking to current students is an excellent way to gather first-hand impressions and personal opinions about a college and student life. If it is not economically or geographically possible to visit the campus, the admissions office can provide names of alumni representatives who live in the student’s area.

– HIGH SCHOOL COUNSELORS-as trained professionals, guidance counselors can provide invaluable information.

– PARENTS AND FRIENDS-according to a group of recent college-bound students, family and friends are one of the best sources of information about colleges (THE COLLEGE HANDBOOK, 1984). They can be a good source of information, opinions, and trustworthy advice.

COLLEGE FAIRS/COLLEGE NIGHTS-many high school guidance offices schedule regular visits from college representatives during the senior year. College fairs are particularly helpful to those who have not had the opportunity to visit many college campuses or talk with college representatives . These fairs provide an excellent opportunity to talk to many college representatives and gather information the same day.

– COMMERCIAL GUIDEBOOKS-see section, “Using Computer Programs and Guidebooks.”

Applying for Admission

The procedures for applying for admission vary from one college to another, but usually the first step is to obtain an application form from the college. This should be done as early as possible in the senior year, or at the end of the junior year if seeking early admission. Students applying for financial aid may also be required to meet early deadlines.

Filling out the application completely and carefully is very important. In addition, many colleges require a recommendation from the secondary school counselor, administrator, or teacher. It is the individual student’s responsibility to file the completed application on time, meet deadline dates for submitting test scores, and file financial aid applications. The school counselor is the key resource for information on test scores, financial aid forms, deadline dates, and other particulars.

– APPLICATION FEE–most charge an application fee, usually not refundable even if the application is rejected.

– ACADEMIC RECORDS–the counselor submits a secondary school transcript or college transfer record of student courses, final grades, and test scores.

– ADMISSION TEST SCORES-for many students, the college selection process begins with the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), which is taken in the fall of the junior year. High school counselors advise students which of the college entrance tests to take-Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), American College Testing Program Test (ACT), Achievement Test (ACH), and the Advanced Placement Tests (AP)-and when to take them.

LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION–some colleges require one or more letters of recommendation from a teacher, counselor, clergy, alumnus, or adult member of the community.

– ESSAY–a personal essay or autobiographical statement is required by some institutions, particularly four-year, private colleges.

Responding to Admission Offers

Once students have heard from all the colleges to which they have applied, it is their responsibility to send a letter of acceptance or rejection of admission offers. According to a 1980 report on undergraduate admissions policies published by the College Board, 83 percent of all college applicants can expect to be accepted by their first-choice college .

In Summary

The steps described in this fact sheet can serve students as a useful checklist for finding, selecting, and applying to college. By following these steps, students can lay the basic groundwork for a rewarding college experience.

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