The only sure consideration in this step is that the schools chosen must offer the program you plan to study. Beyond that, the list of considerations is as long as you want it to be. Some factors many students rate as high on the list of considerations include location, price (don’t forget that most students get some type of financial aid), and co-curricular activities.
I know that college fairs are very popular. Friends, family, and counselors will often suggest that you attend them. I am wary of recommending them, though, for a couple of reasons. Think about it this way. A local fair might have representatives from 200 colleges. A large regional fair might have representatives from 300-400 colleges. On the one hand, those numbers are too small. There are thousands of good colleges all across our country—and across the world. What are the chances that the best one for you just happens to be at the fair you attend? On the other hand, the numbers at most fairs are too large. Can you talk to hundreds of representatives about hundreds of colleges in a few hours? I know I couldn’t.
The one exception I’d make to that is for students who have researched and identified some schools they are interested in, who then attend a fair to gather additional info and speak to a representative one on one. In other words, use the fair as an informational resource for you, rather than allowing it to be marketing tool for the colleges. With those qualifications, a college fair can be a worthwhile tool.
So if college fairs are out, how do you find the school for you? In my mind, online searches are the best way to sort through the huge numbers of colleges and universities available. Many excellent search tools are available free of charge. College Board and Peterson’s both have adequate search tools available. Personally, for those who want to do a comprehensive search, I like the Princeton Review tool just a little bit more. My favorite though (it’s simple and easy to use) is the IPEDS College Opportunities search. I like this search tool because it offers a quick and easy way to generate a list of colleges for consideration.
I always ask my students to come up with at least one state sponsored school within our home state. For example, Rowan University and Richard Stockton University are both state sponsored. That means a New Jersey student can attend either for around $12-13,000 per year (including tuition, room, and board). While that is a lot of money, it is much less than the $20,000-40,000 that some out-of-state or private colleges might charge.
Please keep in mind that identifying appropriate schools is a two way street. Once you have a list of schools that appeal to you, you’ll want to do a little further research to be sure that you are an attractive candidate for them. Consider the classes you’ve taken in high school, your GPA and class rank, your test scores (SAT, ACT, or other as required by the particular college) and special talents or abilities that you have to offer. Many publications available in your high school guidance office or public library will outline what different colleges expect in their applicants. You can also find this information on many college web sites, or simply send an email inquiry to any college that interests you. College admissions reps are eager to fill their seats with qualified applicants. Their main purpose is not to screen you out, but to help you get in—as long as you and the school involved are a good fit.
The next step is to narrow down the list. Read up on the colleges that interest you. Visit their web sites and request further information as needed—whether that happens to be a catalog printed for thousands of prospective students, or an answer just for you. Seek outside information. Talk to friends, teachers, counselors, or employers who may have first-hand knowledge of a college. (Be careful with this step. Don’t be surprised if many of those you talk to tell you that "their" college is the best. Can they all be right?) Do online independent comparisons through links found at usnews.com.
One final step in your selection process should be to visit the campus if at all possible. Contact the admissions office in advance and there may be the opportunity for a guided tour or even an interview. If you are struggling in terms of grades or attendance you should arrange these in the summer or on weekends, so as not to affect your attendance or take time away from your classes. If you are doing well academically, and attendance is not a concern, it might be nice to schedule this to allow for you to sit in on a class or two.