How to Select Universities to Apply To

Now to take a closer look at selecting the universities you want to apply to. There are several factors to consider including rankings, likelihood of acceptance, costs, your ROI, size, location, prestige, and more.  

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Selecting the right college for your needs can be a challenge. You will obviously want to select a college that has a high ranking. To find out how colleges rank, there are a few university and college ranking guides published such as Business Insider, U.S. News and World Report, Money Magazine, Forbes “America’s Top Colleges” ranking and The Washington Monthly’s “College Rankings” issue.  Other groups, publishers, and organizations publish rankings based on different methodology and factors. These can be helpful in understanding how universities compare to each other in performance.  

Selectivity/Likelihood of Acceptance

When counselors are providing advice for students, they suggest that students start to group colleges in four different types: reach, possibles, probable and safety.

  • Reach schools are those that provide a slim chance of acceptance, such as 5% or fewer.
  • Schools defined as possibles provide a greater chance of rejection than acceptance.
  • Probables provide a greater opportunity for acceptance than rejection.
  • Solid schools are those that rarely reject applicants with similar credentials to yours.

School counselors will typically suggest that an applicant apply to a mix of different schools which meet each of the above criteria and to include at least one safety school. There is a helpful service called Naviance which can help a student gauge the likelihood of admission to a specific college.


For many people, the cost can play a big role in which college to choose. When looking into the costs of colleges, keep in mind that there is a sticker price and a net price. The sticker price is the higher, unreliable and artificially high price that is typically not charged to students but is advertised. Most students pay a discounted price that can vary considerably. Colleges and universities use sticker price because it gives them more wiggle room when attracting the best students. They can provide seemingly steep discounts to these kinds of students while marginal students are charged the full cost of tuition. In 2011, a federal law passed requiring colleges to post a net price calculator to give students and families a realistic idea of what a particular institution will charge. Comparing the actual costs of each college will be an important factor in deciding if that school is a good fit. To combat the high cost of college, many counselors recommend applying for financial aid. Every college and university have different criteria for offering loans and financial assistance, which can also be a determining factor.


College can be a costly investment for many students. However, it’s important to look at college costs as a long-term purchase with a return on investment (ROI) which is the future earning potential of a graduate over the years. Some schools are even compared by examining student debt, average costs, and lifelong earnings to yield a correct ROI.  


Oftentimes, the prestige of a certain school is associated with age. For example, the oldest east-coast schools typically have accumulated the most prestige because they have been around for so long. You may want to consider this when choosing a school. For example, a lawyer from Harvard has a ring to it that some students desire.  


There are many different types of colleges and universities available. Before deciding on a college to apply to, plan to make visits to a handful of institutions that are available to you. These should include different types to gain an idea of what the schools feel like and what would be a good fit. For example, you could visit a small liberal arts college, a smaller-scale university, and a large public university. If you feel more comfortable at one type of campus as opposed to the other, you can begin to narrow your hunt and start looking for other schools that are similar to compare.  

The Right fit for long term plans

Finding the "right fit" for long term plans is important. For example, when choosing a school, don’t choose one simply because your friends are going to be there for a few years. Ask yourself, what do I plan on achieving during my years at college? What are my main goals? You could also ask yourself how the school will help you expand your horizons and what non-academic activities are available. Also, does the school provide the preparation you will need to achieve your career goals? Looking into different schools and their specialties is important.  


Size can play a big factor in determining what you will feel comfortable with while going to school. When considering the size of the school of your choice, ask yourself what size of school appeals to you? Are you the type of person who thrives on low student-to-faculty ratios? Are you hoping to meet a wide variety of different people? Do the cultural and religious groups that are important in your life have a large and welcoming presence on campus?  


Some students prefer to stick close to home while others would prefer to attend college in another state. Some like the beach, while others like being inland. There are many possibilities to choose from including big city colleges and rural ones. Ask yourself what your preference is and keep this in mind as well.  

Questions to ask

Here are a few more questions you can ask yourself to help decide what schools to apply to:

  • What different types of resources are available, such as special facilities for your major?
  • How much will it cost to attend and do you have the option of qualifying for financial aid?
  • What clubs and other activities are available?
  • Does the college have a career placement and guidance office?
  • Does the location match your preferences?
  • How is the cost of living in the area?
  • Are you okay with living in the area for 4 years?
  • Where do they rank on the likelihood of acceptance scale?
  • Will the school be a good platform for getting the job you desire?
  • Have others entered your career path by attending the school and been successful?

These are all factors that should be considered when choosing the universities you apply to.

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