Beginner’s Guide to College Applications

Deciding to go to college is a big decision—and narrowing down a list of potential schools can become overwhelming. Many traditional students start the application process in their junior year of high school, while some start thinking about schools and options as early as their sophomore year. Though applying is just the first step in the process, where you apply determines what options you will have once you are in the final stages of making your choice. There are a lot of different factors (location, available majors, price) that will factor into your decision. Thinking about these now will make it easier for you once you start to receive responses to your applications.

Primary Reason for Choosing College (2017)

  • Cost
  • Financial Aid
  • Prestige
  • Academic Program
  • Location
  • Personal Choice
  • Other

Data Source: Sallie Mae /Ipsos, 2017

Like most big decisions, there are lots of different perspectives you can seek. For many students, this is the first time they are making a major decision on their own (or at least with only some input from parents). Here we will break down the top three major factors to consider when starting to choose where you would like to apply.  As you can see in the graph to the left, there are many different factors that may play into your decision. By breaking them down here, you can determine which reason is most important to you at this beginning stage in the process.

Location, location, location

Location is one of the first major deciding factors students encounter in their search.  Especially if there are schools near where you live, there may be a certain expectation or pressure (from parents, guardians, or friends) that you apply close to home.  You may want to explore a new area of the country and get new experiences. Going to college is one of those unique life-changing events that does allow you to embark on a totally different path, so it’s okay to want to explore beyond the borders of your city or state.

When making this choice, it’s important to think about why you are interested in a particular location. Is it a part of the country you’ve always wanted to live in and you see this as your opportunity to experience it? Is it a location close to home that is safe and familiar? If you can, it’s a great idea to visit the campus of potential schools so you can get a sense of what life would be like in this location. If that’s not possible, you may be able to join Facebook groups or other online communities linked to the school and see what current or former students have to say about it.

“When I was looking at colleges, my main goal was to get as far away from home as geographically possible. I am from South Florida and I attended college in upstate New York. In retrospect, however, part of me wishes I had more thoroughly looked for colleges in communities that were more diverse and felt more like home. College is a shock to the system in so many ways, and finding points of comfort is very important.”

-Hannah H., Ithaca College 

If you do have your heart set on a specific location, it’s a good idea to apply to multiple schools in that area, so that you have a backup in case you aren’t accepted to your first choice. If location is not a huge factor in your decision, you can still use it to narrow down your list of schools based on other criteria. For example, you could limit your search to the Southeast. Or look at a few states that are within driving distance of home. Location is just one part of the decision, so don’t limit yourself too much before you’ve considered it from other angles.

Majors & Area of Study

Majors and Area of Study can be another tricky consideration when you are narrowing down your list of schools. College is a completely new experience, and a lot will change once you start classes and begin getting acclimated to life in your new school. While some students know exactly what they want to do from the start, it’s important to remember that things do change, and you might realize halfway through that your interest in theater wasn’t as strong as you thought. Choosing a college that offers a wider range of majors will give you options if you do change your mind. Having to transfer schools once you’ve already started classes can be cumbersome, expensive, and can even delay your graduation.

I attended the school that offered the program that I was most interested in, but that also offered plenty of other science and environmental programs that I could use as a backup in case my original plan backfired. Lucky I did, because I ended up majoring in one of the backup programs!

-Liz Y., Florida State University

If you are a student who doesn’t have a strong sense of what you want to study, larger schools can offer a wider variety of options. You can actually go to college without declaring a major in many of these larger schools. All schools have some basic class requirements that span across all majors, so you can take your time deciding what area of study most appeals to you. Larger or less specialized schools will also allow you to explore a diverse set of interests.

However, if you do feel strongly about a particular area of study, a specialty school can be the right choice. If you have an interest in art, for example, you may want to choose a different school than if you want to become a computer programmer. Just because a school specializes in something doesn’t necessarily mean it will limit your experiences. Schools focused on art or engineering will still offer many majors within that subject area, and for focused students, it can be very rewarding to be surrounded by students and professors who share your specific  interest.

Cost, Financial Aid, and Affordability

Price can be one of the least fun, but ultimately one of the most important factors in your final decision. Though it has little to do with your passion or career goals, it is a realistic barrier to many schools for many students. Price can also be a source of tension or conflict between applicants and parents. Sometimes this is due to a significant parental financial contribution, or parents acting as a co-signer of loans, or simply because going to college is one of the first major financial decisions you will make that will affect you for a long time.

Now, at the application stage of the process, there is no harm in applying for schools that are out of your price range. You often won’t find out about scholarships and financial aid until later in the process (usually as part of an acceptance offer). But, it’s good to apply to a range of schools, in order to give yourself realistic options once you start to receive answers from the places you’ve applied. While price can be the final push towards a decision when choosing which offers to accept, it shouldn’t be as large as a factor in the application process.

I applied to 10 colleges, and attended the cheapest. I didn’t know what I wanted and wasn’t looking for a particular program.  I was attracted by the amount and variety of options at a big public college, but felt like I might do better at a smaller school.  What it came down to was money.  Even with scholarships and grants I would have paid $15,000 in tuition at the cheapest private college.

-Kate E., University of North Carolina 

A Note on Application Fees

Most schools require some kind of application fee in order to apply. More expensive schools can have a more expensive application fee, and even the less expensive options can add if you are applying to multiple schools. There are application fee waivers for income-eligible students, and using the Common App can also help save costs in some cases.

A Note on Student Loans

Student loans may not be something you are thinking about quite yet, but they will play a big role as you move forward in the process. For the average student, student loans are an  unavoidable part of the process. Here is a great post from Nerdwallet that goes into student loans in a little more detail, including the different types of loans available.

There are a lot of factors to consider when applying to college, and location, major, and price are just the tip of the iceberg.  Keep in mind that applying is just the first step of the major decisions you will make—and you want to give yourself options once you start receiving responses from the colleges where you apply. Other factors we didn’t discuss include, but you may want to consider: Private School vs. Public, Size of School“Happiness Factor”Academic Reputation. Follow the links for more in-detail information on these topics. No one of these topics will make your decision; it will be a complex combination of all these factors. Use this as your guide as you narrow down your options, and take your first step towards enrolling in college!

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