Estimate Time3 min

How to choose colleges

When it comes to choosing colleges to apply to, there’s no magic formula for finding the right fit. What’s most important is to have a clear idea of your college goals, expected areas of study, career aspirations, and what you’d like to get out of your college experience. While it’s always great to ask other peoples’ opinions and advice, it’s a very personal choice, and you’ll want to feel confident in your decision.

Be sure to create a balanced list that reflects your wants and needs, while considering which schools can meet those needs and help you succeed.

For starters, most students narrow down their list of colleges based on factors like:

  • Location. Whether you want to be close to home and family, far away, or in a specific city or state, a college’s location is one of the main things most people consider.
  • Cost. From in- and out-of-state tuition rates to housing costs and financial aid opportunities, making sure you can afford to pay for the schools of your choice is key.
  • Specialization in an area of study. Although many incoming college students are undecided about their major, it’s still important to consider which schools match up with your interests.
  • Culture and campus life. For many students, college is as much about study as it is about branching out, trying new things, and meeting new people. Understanding your goals along with various schools’ approaches to student life can be an important consideration.
  • Reputation and prestige. Many students simply choose schools and degree programs that align with their career goals, but others are seeking diplomas they’d be proud to frame and hang on the wall. Understand what you want and your career goals, and keep in mind that your choice of colleges can impact your networking opportunities in the future.

Even after considering all of these factors, it can still be a challenge to decide which colleges to apply to. Take these smart steps to help you narrow down the list of options:

  • Attend college fairs
  • Go on campus tours
  • Take advantage of virtual tours
  • Talk with alums from schools of interest

Categorize prospective colleges based on your chances of being accepted

Once you’ve decided on all the schools you’d be happy attending, sort your list by comparing your SAT or ACT scores to the average scores of last year’s freshman class for each school. Place each college option into one of these three categories: 


These are colleges you’re confident you have a very good chance of getting into and believe you’ll be able to afford. Choose 1 to 2 safeties for your list. 


These are colleges you’re confident you have a good chance of getting into, and they’re good matches for you overall. Choose 2 to 4 matches for your list. Reaches These are colleges you feel getting into may be more of a challenge, but it’s realistic enough to be worth applying. Choose 1 to 2 reaches for your list.


These are colleges you feel getting into may be more of a challenge, but it’s realistic enough to be worth applying. Choose 1 to 2 reaches for your list.

Help your teen learn about money

The Fidelity Youth® Account gives teens the power to save and invest their money.

More to explore

Find the right college

Explore schools, with rankings and reviews.

This information is general in nature and provided for educational purposes only.