How to Decide Between Two Colleges

For most high school seniors, choosing a college represents the most difficult and momentous life decision they’ve had to make. Narrowing it down to two schools makes the decision simpler, but not necessarily easier. If you’re trying to decide between two colleges, there are several criteria you can use to help you figure out which way to go.

Most importantly, you should visit both colleges and take a tour. This will help you get a feel for the campus and the student body. It’s a huge gamble to commit to a college without having set foot on campus.

You should also look at the academic programs and majors offered by each college offers and make sure they align with your interests.

This guide offers six tips on how to decide between two colleges.

A fork in the road.

How to Decide Between Two Colleges

Tour Both Campuses

There are a few key reasons why touring both campuses is critical when you’re trying to decide between two colleges. 

First of all, it’s important to get a feel for the physical space of each college. Some people prefer smaller campuses, whereas others like the bustle of a big city campus.

While some students feel more comfortable on a campus that is distinctly “college” — lots of green space, a quad, and stately academic buildings — others might prefer a shinier and newer look, with buildings that blend seamlessly into the surrounding city or town.

Seeing both colleges on your list in person will help you get a better sense of which environment you’d be more comfortable in.

Second, visiting both campuses will give you a chance to meet some of the students and faculty. This can be helpful in getting a sense of the culture and community at each school. Each college has its own unique personality, so it’s important to make sure you find one that fits your own values and interests.

A campus can have all the physical beauty in the world, but if it’s a bad social or academic fit, it probably won’t work out.

So, make sure you talk to as many people as possible — including students, professors, faculty heads, and even random staff members like maintenance technicians and dining hall workers — during each campus visit.

Finally, putting in face time on campus can actually improve your chances of getting in. Many schools — particularly liberal arts colleges and other small, private schools — list “demonstrated interest” as an important criterion for admission.

In other words, they try to admit students who actively show interest in the school as opposed to those who just apply on the fly. And the best way to show genuine interest is to visit campus.

Research Academic Programs and Majors

A tapestry of college majors.

When choosing between two colleges, students often overlook the importance of researching the academic programs and majors offered at each school.

However, taking the time to compare and contrast the programs and majors offered at each college can help you make a more informed decision about which school is right for you.

Here are a few reasons why you should research the academic programs and majors offered at both schools before making a decision:

  • It can help you eliminate a school quickly if its programs and majors don’t align with your career goals. For instance, if you know for a fact that you want to be an engineer, but one of the schools on your list doesn’t offer engineering, it probably isn’t going to work, even if you love the campus and the people there. Granted, you might be able to do something like a 3-2 program with a school that does offer engineering, or study it in graduate school, but you should be aware of such caveats before you make your final decision.
  • It can help you compare and contrast programs. Some programs may look similar on paper — for instance, both schools might offer an accounting or finance major — but they can vary greatly in terms of curriculum, teaching style, student population, and so forth.
  • It can give you a sense of what your classes will be like at each school. When you research programs, take a hard look at the professors and particularly the department heads, as they set the tone for the entire program. Are these the kinds of mentors you want to study under for four years? If you aren’t sure, or if the answer is no, you might want to look elsewhere.

Consider Rankings and Reputation

If you’ve visited both campuses, compared the academic programs at both schools, and talked to students and professors, and you’re still conflicted, it might be time to head over to U.S. News and other ranking sites.

Though they’re much maligned as of late, rankings and reputation are two important factors to consider when making your decision. After all, your degree will serve as an important part of getting in the door with future employers and business partners.

When comparing rankings, be sure to look at the methodology behind them. See what criteria the school or schools are being judged on and decide if that’s important to you.

For example, if a school ranks high for research opportunities but you’re not interested in pursuing a career in research, then that ranking may not matter as much to you.

You should also be aware that many of the criteria used today by U.S. News and other publications have little to do with the quality of education you’ll receive. For instance, schools get a huge bump in the rankings for accepting more Pell Grant students.

While a strong argument can certainly be made for admitting students without regard for financial need, it’s hard to see how the percentage of Pell Grant admits at a school will impact how well-prepared you’ll be for your future career.

Reputation is also important to consider. A school’s reputation can tell you a lot about its culture and values. If you want a work-hard-play-hard environment, for instance, you might think twice about schools such as Carnegie Mellon that are known to be pressure cookers.

Think About the Social Climate

College students socializing.

Choosing a college that provides the right academic opportunities is critical. But what about the social climate of a college? That’s important, too. Here’s why:

The social climate of a college is the culture on campus. It includes the dynamics between students both in and out of the classroom. Some colleges have highly stratified social climates.

This type of culture often manifests in heavy Greek life participation and social stratification via sports teams, fraternities and sororities, or on-campus clubs.

At other schools, the social climate is more open and laid-back. These are the places where you see theater kids yukking it up with jocks in the dining hall. Your personality dictates which of these social climates you’d be more likely to thrive in and make friends easily.

Once again, the best way to get a feel for the social climate of a college is to spend some time on campus before making your decision.

Be on the lookout for schools with negative social climates, which can be hostile and exclusive. On these campuses, students often report feeling unwelcome, isolated, and alone if they don’t fit the right mold.

A negative social climate can also lead to academic problems because it can interfere with learning and motivation.

Compare Distance From Home

When it comes to deciding between two colleges, one of the things you’ll need to consider is how far away from home you want to be. For some students, being close to home is important so they can have family support.

Other students prefer to be farther away so they can have a more independent experience.

There are pros and cons to both choices. If you choose to go to school close to home, you’ll have a support system that is close by. You’ll also have an easier time getting home for breaks and holidays.

On the downside, you might miss out on the adventure that comes from starting over someplace new. Also, if you attend a nearby college where a lot of people from your high school go, it could be tempting to stick with the same crowd instead of branching out and meeting new people.

If you choose to go farther away from home, you’ll have to adjust to a new environment, but it can be a great opportunity to meet new people and learn about different cultures. You’ll also likely have more independence, which can help you grow as a person.

Consider Costs (Including Financial Aid and Scholarships)

Costs are an important factor in any college decision.

Another important factor to consider is cost. In many cases, financial constraints could end up making your decision for you.

A college might be the perfect fit academically and socially, but if you and your family can’t pay the tuition bill and keep a roof over your head and food on your plate, it isn’t a viable option.

Keep in mind that just like with cars, the sticker price of a college isn’t what most people end up paying. You could end up earning scholarships, either from the school itself or from outside sources, and if you have a demonstrated need, many schools are generous with financial aid.

That said, a massive discrepancy exists between colleges when it comes to the amount of need and merit-based aid they give. So the school that looks cheapest on paper might not end up being the best financial deal for you.

Therefore, if finances are a big factor in your decision, you should wait for your financial aid award letters to come in from each school you get into before making your choice.

Deciding Between Two Colleges: The Bottom Line

Deciding between two colleges can be tough, and the implications of your choice can be massive. That’s why it’s critical to consider all of the factors that are important to you.

Take the time to visit both campuses, speak with students and professors, and research the programs and services offered by each school.

Ultimately, the decision should be based on which college will provide you with the best educational and social experience and help you reach your goals.

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