How to choose a college that’s right for you

A college admissions expert shares tips on what high school seniors — and parents — can do right now.

High school seniors attending Command Education's signature 5-Day College Application Booster Camp that is hosted every August in New York. Roberta Seiler/Command Education Inc. via AP

By late February, most high school seniors who are planning to attend college in the fall have already submitted applications, and are waiting to find out where they will spend the next four years. This stage of the college admissions process can be stressful and confusing. But there are ways to make new financial realities and life-changing decisions easier. 

Ahead, Casey Near, executive director of counseling for Collegewise, shares tips on how to approach financial decisions and what parents and students can do that will help them choose the right school. 

Find an environment that works for you

First, Near recommends students should look at environments where you find the most success.

“Is it in classes where you’re surrounded by curious kids asking a lot of questions, or did all that chatter distract you and you like the classes where it’s more lecture style?” she said. “Do you tend to gravitate towards the kids who go to homecoming, or do you like the kids who were playing Dungeons & Dragons? You know who you like, where you succeed, and how you try. So let’s replicate that college environment.” 

Visit the campus — in person, virtually, or find one nearby

She also recommends visiting colleges to get a better picture of what life will be like, and has some tricks for when it’s unaffordable. If possible, visit a local school with a similar profile (for instance, high schoolers applying to a large urban research university across the country could tour a campus closer to home, like Boston University), and spend a few minutes on Google Maps street view to wander the campus digitally. 

Share noteworthy updates with admissions

If you have your heart set on a certain school, Near says providing an update to admissions is helpful, but there might be little you can do to boost your chances.


“There are things that have happened between November 1 and now that are worth updating. Oftentimes a sports season has ended, grades have come out for first semester or first trimester. So definitely for kids who have applied early and are deferred, updates are really helpful because you know a good amount of time has passed,” she said. “For regular decision students…I’m always pretty cautious about updates for that pool, unless it’s truly noteworthy — like regional or state level accolades or awards.”

Keep your eyes open when it comes to finances

The other major consideration is finances. Near’s advice to parents is to speak openly about finances as early as possible. 

“I think people shy away from those honest conversations, but my kids who have had the least amount of stress go in eyes wide open,” she said. 

Once that groundwork is in place, there is often some flexibility. Although admissions decisions generally can’t be negotiated, financial aid packages often can, especially if new financial information is available. 

Financial documents are submitted from two years prior, meaning it’s old data, says Near. Family income may fluctuate or a parent loses a job. “I usually encourage those families to go to the…school financial aid office, or call to hear what, if any, adjustments they can make.”


Near also recommends searching for local scholarships, often posted on high school announcement boards. This reduces the competition and makes an award more likely. There are also loans — subsidized, which don’t begin accruing interest while you’re attending full-time school; unsubsidized, which do; and private, which are offered by banks as opposed to the federal government.

If you need a large financial aid package, Near recommends applying to schools where you’re above their average applicant profile — where you have a higher than average SAT score, a better GPA, or more leadership activities — because the school will be more likely to award merit scholarships. 

“Schools where you’re above their profile are not just academic safeties, but likely financial ones too,” Near said. She recommends using research tools like Big Future from CollegeBoard and Naviance. 

Find joy in every acceptance

Finally, Near stressed the importance of finding joy in the process.

“Celebrate every single acceptance. It’s very easy to say ‘I knew I’d get in there,'” she said. Be considerate, she suggests. This could be your classmate’s dream or reach school. She added, “Getting into college is a big deal, and I want parents to celebrate that in front of their kids.”


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