How to Choose Colleges

How to choose colleges can feel like a mystery, yet creating your list has never been more important. With acceptance rates plunging and tuition soaring, students need information and resources to do it well.

The nation’s selective colleges accept as many students this year as they did 20 years ago, even as 10 times more students are applying. Since colleges are not expanding their populations, students need to expand their horizons.

We are a land of colleges and universities – about 4000 of them. They are institutions as varied and complex as our fifty states – times eight. 

There are Ivy League universities; undergraduate schools of engineering, computer science, journalism, and business; music and acting conservatories; and community colleges. There are small women’s liberal arts colleges, small and medium-size liberal arts colleges, a network of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and huge state universities with major sports stadiums and football coaches whose salaries are much higher than those of university presidents. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world apply to US colleges because of this huge variety of resources. 

Tens of thousands focus on the top 10, 20 and 30 colleges. These often include Ivies, Northwestern, Tufts, and the most selective state universities. Those are the University of Michigan, University of Texas, and the vast University of California system. But even as application numbers soar, the real estate at these places stays the same. 

In your search, look beyond the usual suspects. There are state schools with programs that have your name and your interests on them. Hunt for hidden gems that will give you a fabulous education — and maybe a lot of merit aid.

How to Choose Colleges 2022-23

People choose their colleges based on interests, geography, weather, and family resources.

Google matters. If you want to major in Computer Science, Google will spit out top CS undergraduate programs. Don’t apply only to the top 10!  Dig deeper than that!

You can find just about everything you need by searching: “top X programs,” and the rankings go far beyond the top ten. But there’s much more information that’s important to this process.

For example, Google will tell you just about anything, but if you’re looking for business schools, I love the site Poets and Quants, which focuses on MBAs but has an info-packed undergrad website right here.

Once you have a few ideas, these are two great resources to help you choose colleges to apply to. One is free, and the other is about $20. 

College Niche is a free website listing all high schools AND colleges in the U.S. Each page publishes extensive information about admissions figures, requirements, costs, 10 most popular majors, and — best of all – REVIEWS, often from hundreds of students, broken down by different aspects of the college experience. You can also enter your GPA and test scores and see a scattergram of your chances of admission.

You can search by college name or by state. The REVIEWS are at the bottom of the page, and there is a DROP-DOWN MENU to the LEFT that allows you see reviews by category. — see the arrow below. When you read reviews, read several dozen, not 2 or 3, so you get a wider view.




Another resource for choosing colleges is the series of guidebooks published every August by Princeton Review, called The Best 387 Colleges. Note: the number in the title goes up 1 or 2 every year.

Often available at many Barnes and Noble branches, you can order the book online from BN and AMAZON, and the publisher’s own site. Best 387 Colleges has lots of quirky “best lists” in front, but the heart of the book are 2-page overviews of these 387 “best colleges.” (This year it’s 388.) You can also get plenty of information on rankings and much more.

The 2-page overviews offer great information in the text and sidebars. You can read about what’s important in admissions, student comments, the vibe, the study scene, the most popular majors, and — my favorite — ratings in the lefthand sidebar for PROFESSOR INTERESTING RATING and PROFESSOR ACCESSIBLE RATING. For example, for PENN STATE, those numbers are 81 and 84.  For HARVARD, 78 and 81, and for HARVEY MUDD 98 and 99. In case you want to know whether you’re likely to have much of a relationship with your professors.

Figuring out how to choose colleges for your list will take time, research, and, if possible, a visit or three. Should you consult these resources and are want to pursue additional help, please contact me.

If you are at another point in your application journey and need to write essays, please see my recent articles, including why I love this year’s Common App essay prompts, “The College Admissions Essay Prompts Are Your Friends”  and “A Great College Essay: Wanna Write One?”

If you want to learn about what’s changed in college admissions since COVID, read “College Admissions 2022-23: Rethinking Strategies Since COVID”

Click here to learn what students and parents say about working with me. For more about my values as a coach, please click here.

Thanks for stopping by. or pick up the phone for help in how to choose colleges or start your applications: 1-855-99-ESSAY.