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What is the most important factor in selecting a school?

There are several important differences to consider when it comes to selecting a school. Small school vs. Large school. City vs. Rural. Selection of majors, or the school’s ranking. Is there one factor which is the most important?

Doris D.


First, keep in mind that there is no one factor that will be consistently important to everyone, regardless of whether it is the school’s size, location or faculty/student ratio. The most important factor in selecting a school is the factor that is most important to you. In order to determine this, you must ask yourself, what factor is so important to me that I would not consider attending the school if it did not have this factor? For some students, that factor may be a specific academic major, a study-abroad opportunity in New Zealand, a unique residential program for first-year students, community service/outreach programs in local communities or even a year-long climate of at least 80 degrees! The last item may sound silly, but remember that no factor is unimportant if it is important to you.

In selecting a school, I also would encourage students to consider schools that offer programs (academic or otherwise) that you have never heard of. In essence, you want to attend a school where you will grow as a person. You want to be able to explore an academic area that is new to you so that you test and challenge your interests and abilities. You want to be able to join a club that you’ve never heard of so that you can meet students with diverse interests.

It often is said that the right college is where you will be happy and successful; I agree. However, I also would say that the right college is where you will be challenged and encouraged to move outside of your comfort zone.

How will you know if you’ve made the right choice? You’ll know if the factors you considered were truly your own. In coming to your own decision, you’ll need to set aside the US News & World Report rankings; you’ll need to set aside the opinions of your friends, neighbors and sometimes even your parents (yikes!). All of these opinions are important, but YOU (the student) must make the final choice based on your own thorough college search.

Doris D. is an internationally recognized admissions professional with over 30 years experience working in undergraduate admissions at Ivy League schools and other elite universities. She specializes in providing campus tours of Ivy League schools as well as forums on applying for admission to elite universities. As an educational consultant, she works with students and secondary schools all over the world and regularly travels to Asia.

Jane M.


In responding to this question, I have two thoughts that I hope you will take into consideration. First of all, there are many, many colleges where you can be very happy and find an excellent fit. Students often believe that they have to find THE college that will be perfect for them, and I can pretty much guarantee that “perfect college” doesn’t exist. Instead, you need to find at least ONE of the many colleges that would be an excellent fit for you. Secondly, look inward rather than looking outward. These days, too many students (and parents) look at college rankings or ask their friends or relatives which schools they think are the “good colleges.” When I get asked that question, I respond, “Good for whom?” Before you can choose a college that will provide an excellent learning and living environment for you, you need to look inside and think about what kind of situations and experiences work best for YOU! There are lots of ways to do this. You can meet with a counselor – school counselor or educational consultant. There are also books and internet tools that will help you sort through the criteria that are important to most students. One that I like is the Sizing-Yourself-Up Survey in the “Fiske Guide to Colleges.” But once you’ve completed a survey that was created by someone else, ask yourself if it has covered all the items that make the most difference to you.

Next, it is essential to visit colleges that match (and don’t match!) your criteria so that you can test out your assumptions. You might be surprised. You might find that the school you like the best doesn’t fit your preconceived notions about what will be best for you. And that’s OK. This is a process, and learning about yourself while going through it is one of the benefits.

Jane M. holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from UC Santa Barbara and is a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP 1605). She began working as an educational consultant in San Francisco in 1983 where the focus of her work was, and continues to be, on college counseling and conducting psychoeducational evaluations.

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