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5 Tips for Finding a Best-Fit College
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Read on for help with the college-search process.

5 Tips for Finding a Best-Fit College
UPrep’s director of college counseling shares college search advice

There are nearly 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. With so many choices, how do you begin to figure out which colleges are right for you from an academic, social, cultural, and financial standpoint? In the College Counseling Office at UPrep, a high school in Seattle, Washington, we frequently remind students that “finding the best-fit college is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”

Here are five tips to help you find colleges and universities that will fit you well and help you grow.

Tip #1: Match Your Learning Style 

When students start the college-search process, they often focus on their intended major. Yet, according to a 2012/14 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, about a third of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs changed majors at least once. While the colleges you apply to should offer degrees in topics you are interested in, it’s also important to match your learning style to the college’s teaching style.

Think back on your high school career so far. Which classes did you excel in and how did you learn material in those classes? If you thrive in smaller classes, look for a college that has a suitable teacher-to-student ratio and discussion-style classes. If you want access to your teachers, look for places where professors prioritize teaching and relationships with students. Some colleges and universities have graduate assistants, called teaching assistants, who are the actual teacher in some courses. If you prefer listening to lectures, anonymity, and not being called on a lot, you might prefer a larger college with many lecture-style classes.

Schools also vary in the schedules they offer. Some schools operate on the quarter schedule, with each class lasting roughly nine weeks, while other classes have two semesters, with classes that run for about 14 weeks. There are some schools that are on the block schedule, like Colorado College, where you take one class at a time. Bates College has a May term, which is like the January term at some colleges, where students take only one class for four weeks.

Tip #2: Find Your Financial Fit 

During the past 20 to 30 years, the cost of higher education has risen exponentially. Before you begin your college search, it is important to have an honest conversation about what is affordable for you and your family. The goal of this conversation is for everyone to know the answers to a few questions:

  • How much can my parents or guardians afford to contribute to the cost of college each year?
  • How much do you, the student, need to contribute to the cost of college?
  • Will you take on debt to finance your education, and if yes, how much debt?

When looking at college costs, it’s important to figure out the “net” cost of a college, as opposed to the “sticker price.” The sticker price is the full price listed on each college’s website. The net price is what a student is likely to pay after grants and scholarships are awarded. Often, the net cost is quite different than the sticker price. By law, each college or university website must include a net price calculator (NPC). There, you enter general financial information about your family. Then, the NPC calculates what you would have likely paid to that school during the previous year, after factoring in grants and scholarships. This gives you a good ballpark figure for deciding which colleges will be affordable for your family. 

College-sponsored merit scholarships are awarded to students based on academic achievement; geographic, ethnic, or racial diversity; a particular talent (artistic, athletic, etc.); extracurricular involvement (community service, for example); or scholarship examinations. Schools differ widely in the number and size of scholarships offered, and is a centralized website dedicated to matching students with merit-based scholarships from more than 3,0000 colleges and universities.

In some families, finding schools that will offer merit aid is important, while other families might need schools that are generous with need-based aid. Sometimes students assume that public colleges are more affordable. However, out-of-state public schools aren’t going to be as affordable as in-state public schools. Private schools tend to be more generous with need-based aid. During the college search, it’s good to remember that a school isn’t going to be a fit if it isn’t a financial fit. It might check a lot of boxes on your list, but it’s usually not worth it to attend a school where you will need to take on a lot of debt.

Tip #3: Explore the Unknown

What haven’t you been exposed to your in life that you want to gain exposure to? Often, people grow the most within unknown spaces, and college is an opportunity to explore the unknown. Do you want to experience life in a big city or a rural setting? Sometimes students who have attended small high schools are interested in attending a large public university. Some students hope to experience living far from home or on a different coast.

What’s on your exploration list? Perhaps you’re interested schools with a geographically diverse student body. Some college student bodies include a diverse array of students from all over the United States. Other colleges have a sizable percentage of students from other countries. Some colleges are known for their study abroad programs, like Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. UPrep graduate Danait Yemane ’13, said her life-changing Global Link trip to Colombia during her senior year of high school led her to make a conscious effort to travel in college through study abroad programs, fellowships, internships, teaching positions, and research with professors. She studied and worked in eight countries during college at The John Hopkins School and continued to travel during grad school at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, too.

Tip #4: Focus on Stretching, Not Breaking 

The aim of college is to be launched off into the world feeling confident about who you are and ready for your next step. The goal is to land at a school where you are stretched to grow academically, while still being able to enjoy other aspects of college life that you want to explore, from playing intermural sports and joining clubs to hanging out with friends and discovering the city, town, or natural landscapes that surround your school.

Think about what type of environment you thrive in. Frank Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be does a nice job of job of explaining that sometimes it’s nicer to be a bigger fish in small pond. It’s helpful to visit local colleges to understand what type of school will support your growth. If you live in Seattle, for instance, maybe you’ll spend time at the University of Washington and realize that you are energized by the range of classes to choose from at a large public school. Or perhaps you’ll like the Jesuit nature of Seattle University, which will lead you to ask, what schools in other parts of the country are like Seattle University? A short trip to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, will offer insight into attending a private college in a small city.

Sometimes students think just because they haven’t heard of a school it must not be worth considering. When your college counselor suggests a school for you, check it out. It might fit your specific needs and wants.

#5 Discover Free Tools and Resources

At UPrep, we offer our students a robust list of resources, including our College Counseling Handbook, a fifty-page guide that walks high school juniors and seniors through the college search and application process. We also offer a curated list of popular websites that include information on test prep, applying for scholarships and financial aid, and supporting learning differences.

See the matriculation list for 2018–2022 UPrep graduates.

Headshot photo of University Prep Director of College Counseling and Student Services Kelly Herrington, wearing a green shirt

By Director of College Counseling and Student Services Kelly Herrington


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