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How to choose a college: tips on comparing schools and finding your perfect match

College • March 5, 2019 • Kiley Thompson


What you’ll learn

  • Websites that can help you compare schools
  • The difference between a public and private university
  • Factors to consider when choosing a school


You might know people who think that, as a high school student, you should just know how to compare colleges and choose the one that’s perfect for you. But the truth is, it’s not something that comes easily. With so many schools competing for your attention, making a decision can seem daunting—but it doesn’t have to be.

Here’s how to compare colleges and choose a school that’s right for you.

How to compare colleges

With college search websites, like College Navigator or the ever-present College Board, you can discover colleges, and compare factors like size, cost, and majors. All of the college search websites out there pull from a standard database, so look around and find a search site that works for your needs.

U.S. News and World Report, which famously ranks schools based on a multitude of factors, has a great top 10 list of college websites.

Once you decide what’s important to you, develop a first-pass list of schools that match your needs and wants. Then start researching them. Start with the schools’ websites and expand your search onto their social media channels and alumni sites.

Don’t rule out a private university because you think it’s too expensive.


Comparing colleges takes time and effort. You’ll want to take notes and stay organized.

Public vs private colleges

The main difference between public and private schools is how they’re funded.

Public universities receive some money from their state governments. Private institutions don’t receive public money, and therefore, rely on private endowments, contributions, and tuition.

Private colleges and universities tend to be, on average, more expensive than public. However, that might not be the case for you. It depends on the financial aid you’re offered in your financial aid award letter.

Don’t rule out a private university because you think it’s too expensive. Many private schools have college grants and scholarship programs to attract and retain top students.

As for their size, since public universities use public funds, they can be huge. Some state universities have over 40,000 undergraduates alone! They may also have a wider variety of majors and programs than many private universities.

Private schools tend to be smaller, and often have a specific range of majors or fields.

How to choose a college

Here are five primary factors to consider when figuring out what is most important to you:

  1. Majors offered

    What do you want to study? What do you want to do professionally? Will this school help you do those things?

  2. Size

    Are you okay riding a shuttle to class, or do you want a small, walkable campus?

  3. Cost

    Think about the total cost of college. That includes transportation, food, technology, books, and more. It’s not just tuition. Are you willing to take out federal student loans or private student loans?

  4. Distance from home

    Do you dream of experiencing a new part of the country (again, consider the costs of travel for four years)? Or is staying in-state a priority for you? Have you considered commuting to save money?

  5. Campus location

    Does a busy city inspire you? Or would you rather have easy access to nature?

Choosing a college is an adventure

My last piece of advice is to start your college search early. Give yourself plenty of time to do research and visit schools, without feeling frantic.

Have fun and be open to the unexpected!


Kiley Thompson is a writer and editor for Smart College Visit. She has previously worked in alumni relations and undergraduate admissions.


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Sallie Mae does not provide financial, tax, or legal advice and the information contained in this article does not constitute tax, legal, or financial advice. Sallie Mae does not make any claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in this article. Readers should consult their own attorneys or other tax advisors regarding any financial strategies mentioned in this article. These materials are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the views or endorsement of Sallie Mae.