5 Tips for Deciding Where to Apply to College

by Rhoan Garnett

Where to apply to college? At first, this decision can be completely overwhelming! Like other decisions, once you break it down you can get through it with minimal drama.

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You’re anxious about how and where to apply. You’re wondering what’s a good match for you. You’re worried that your test scores and grades aren’t good enough. Many colleges are saying they’re now test-optional, but what does that really mean? If you are admitted, you’re concerned about whether your family can afford it. All of this weighs on your mind, and in the end, you’re wondering if you even belong at college. Especially if no one in your family has ever gone on to college.

You might be concerned about whether or not there will be other students like you and making new friends. You’re worried about leaving good friends and family and being homesick. Maybe you’ve been helping support your family. You’re asking if you really need more education. Let me assure you. You aren’t alone in this uncertainty. You can do this!

Nearly all high school seniors struggle with the same challenges you’re facing when thinking about where to apply to college. While most school counselors care deeply about your success, their workload limits the time they can spend helping you decide where to apply to college. Teachers also support your success and are usually happy to write your letters of recommendation, they are not always familiar with the entire marketplace of options for college and financial aid and scholarships.

After graduating from college, I went to work in admissions at one of the most selective private liberal arts colleges in the US. While we visited with thousands of students around the country, my colleagues and I were still unable to visit with and directly recruit from most high schools.

Even though the college had a substantial recruitment and financial aid budget to support students who couldn’t afford the cost of attendance, the first-generation students of color who most benefited from our financial aid support also experienced the most significant challenges in their transition to college. I recruited BIPOC students from all different backgrounds all over the country and got to know them through the admissions process and continued to build those relationships after they enrolled in college.

When I stared my PhD program at a top public research university in Washington, I reviewed undergraduate admission applications so I got to see admissions from a small, selective liberal arts college on the east coast as well as a big selective public university on the west coast. I am here to help you ease some of your uncertainty in deciding where to apply to college!

Based on my experience as an admissions counselor, here are my 5 tips for how to decide where to apply to college

#1 – You Are the Buyer

First, you must always remember you’re the buyer, in a buyers’ marketplace of 3,500 colleges and universities across the U.S., and about 500 or more internationally to choose from. They are public and private, four- and two-year, vocational, business, engineering or technology-focused, liberal arts, single-sex, religion-affiliated, tuition-free, and for-profit schools. Some are selective about the students they accept, while others are open access, meaning they’ll admit all who apply. Many accept all applicants until they are full.

Look for a Sense of Belonging and Personal Challenge

Don’t rule out any school where you genuinely feel a sense of belonging. When you decide where to apply to college, you’re shopping for places that fit you academically, financially, and emotionally. These are your favorites—schools where you can thrive in your college experience and maybe your first independent experience. Don’t be afraid to choose courage and reach for your dream school!

You’ve read their mission statements. You share their vision for the future and the world. You’re persuaded that you’ll soon find yourself comfortable with all aspects of campus life—the classes, the professors, and the students—but not too comfortable. You want a place where you can be challenged to grow into the person you are meant to be.

Look for a mission that engages the full potential of the individual, where innovation thrives, and diversity and inclusion of views, beliefs, and values are integrated with equity. You want a place where you can expect to enjoy your time in the dorm and on the quad just as you can expect to be challenged in the classroom. 

When deciding where to apply, in addition to reaching for your dream school, you’d also be wise to select a few colleges that you feel could effectively serve your needs even if your top-chosen colleges don’t accept you. More on this in the next tip! Remember, you’re the buyer in a buyers’ marketplace. 

#2 – Consider a Reach School + a Likely School When Deciding Where to Apply to College

Apply to what are often called “reach” schools, even though you might not get in. “Reach” schools are so selective that although most applicants meet standards for acceptance, you can expect these schools to deny your application, simply because they deny most applicants! 

You’re wise to also consider a “likely”—a school where your academic record makes acceptance pretty close to a sure thing, and that you’re certain you can afford. (Learn more about paying for college here).

It’s a good idea to apply to a public college in your state even if your goal is to move across the country, just in case! This is also important if you’re not going to leave home right away. This could be for family reasons or because you want to live at home for a bit longer.

#3 – Use the Common Application

At this point you might have three or four or five colleges on your list. Keep in mind that each school requires an application fee and you can get a fee waiver if you need one.

If you’re applying to any private colleges, it’s a good idea to use the Common App or another similar process to submit all of your applications at the same time. While colleges have different requirements to keep track of, this streamlines things like requesting transcripts, fee waivers and letters of recommendation.

Some states also have a common application for public colleges (Washington State does not).

Consider the “Early Decision” Decision

Is “Early Decision” is a good idea? Consider an early application if you’ve found one college that stands out in your mind above all others, a definite first choice, or your dream school.

If you apply Early Decision, you’ll have an earlier application deadline and will probably hear back from that college by winter break. An important thing to know about Early Decision is that it is binding, which means if they accept you you must enroll and cannot consider other options.

Early Decision can simplify where to apply to college if you have one clear first choice school above all others. It is also extremely important to clarify the college’s financial aid policies (go with what is in writing, not what they tell you verbally) when considering Early Decision. Does the college commit to meeting a student’s full financial need? If not, consider doing a regular application or Early Action if it’s offered.

Early Action is similar to Early Decision except that it isn’t binding. You find out early but you can still apply to other colleges if you like. Apply if your family can afford the full cost of attendance or discuss your financial situation with the financial aid office.

If you aren’t accepted Early Decision or Early Action, you still have plenty of time to apply to other colleges on your list of favorites.

Remember, you’re looking for a school that can fit you academically, financially, and emotionally. A school that represents your personality and identity. A college that can afford you or you can afford it (make sure to compare those financial aid award letters and understand all your offers). A campus environment where your thoughts, ideas, and perspectives matter. That’s the experience you’re searching for—that place where you can expect to feel a sense of belonging and better evolve into who you are.