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Looking at Colleges Side by Side

aerial view of campus

It's time to decide which colleges are your most serious candidates. So toss the rankings aside and get ready to play judge and jury.

Rankings from "experts" and suggestions from friends can be shortcuts to building your final college list. But be your own expert. If you take your time and assess each college on your own terms, you'll build a great college list.

1. What College Features Are Important—to You?

Before you start comparing schools, put down on paper what's important to you in a college. What Is Your Ideal College? gives you a handy list of typical college features to consider, such as location and size. How to Choose Your Top College Priorities helps you figure out which features are most important to you.

2. Rank Your College Requirements

Let's say you want a school with an affordable net price, in a big city, and with a top program in your major. Which of those three qualities is most important? What if you found an affordable school with your major that was more rural? Is an urban environment less important than the other two features? Or more?

Let's say you found several schools with all three features. How would you narrow down the list? What other qualities would influence your final choice? These features should also go on your requirements list as "tie breakers."

3. Research Your Colleges

Your next step is to evaluate the colleges you are considering. CollegeData's college profiles contain a wealth of information. For example, you can see majors, financial aid offered, graduation rates, even the sports played at the college. You may also want to go deeper and look on the college websites for specific programs within academic departments, talk to alumni or current students, or meet with an admissions rep.

4. Rank Your Colleges

If your top choices are obvious, choosing which colleges to put on your application list might be as simple as talking your choices over with your parents. If you have a long list of colleges or a tough-to-call decision, try this simple approach.

  1. Assign points to each desired feature. The more important a feature is, the more points it gets.
  2. Award points for each feature for each college, up to the maximum points for that feature.
  3. Look carefully at the results. Below is an example. College C has the most points and may be the top-ranked choice, but College B may also be a good choice. Both are good candidates for an application list.
Pts   College A College B College C College D
10 Strong major program 8 10 10 8
8 Likely to be affordable 4 4 8 6
4 Suburban location 1 4 2 2
2 Within 500 mi. of home 2 2 2 0
1 Lots of school spirit 1 0 1 1
25 Total points 16 20 23 17

5. Give Yourself a Reality Check: Visit Your Colleges IF YOU CAN

A college may look good on paper, but seem wrong once you visit. Or a "maybe" college feels perfect when you step on campus. For example, someone who thinks school spirit is unimportant might love the student camaraderie once they experience it firsthand. Visiting colleges helps you understand college qualities at a "gut" level.

When you need to cut down your college list, making these side-by-side comparisons may help you identify colleges that truly excite you — and those that don't. If you are not excited about a college or feel unsure that you would attend the college if admitted, you probably shouldn't apply. It's wiser to focus your energy on reach, match and safety schools that you know you would be happy to attend.

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