So, where do you want to go? To help you answer this big question, here are ten little ones you'll want to ask first.
Does it have my academic program?
Not only should it have your intended major, but also other academic fields that interest you in case you change your mind. Remember, it's much easier to change your major than to transfer to a new school.
What's campus life like?
Look at the range of campus clubs, groups, and activities available. Read the college's Facebook page to see what's going on. Can you do the things you like to do? Any new experiences you want to try?
How far do I want to go?
Some students want to experience entirely new terrain, and some like to have a short drive to their parents' house for the weekend.
Can I afford it?
This is about more than the cost of tuition; it's figuring out a total financial aid solution. Scholarships, grants, and loans can significantly reduce the amount your family will pay.
Are athletics important?
Whether you want to play or just cheer from the sidelines, sports might be a big part of your college experience. Or not. The size of the school may be a big factor here.
How are the campus facilities?
Look at the library, the science labs, the residence halls, the fitness facility, and any other campus building you'll spend time in. The quality of these facilities will tell you a lot about the experience you'll have.
Is it the right size?
There are lots of reasons to select a big school. There are just as many reasons to attend a small one. Medium-ish, too. Be sure to try them all on for size.
Does it have a good mix of students?
When you visit a campus, you may see students who are just like you. You'll also see students who are nothing like you. Some of both is usually best, so find the mix that feels right.
Will I be challenged?
Ask if this is a place where you'll be pushed to grow and learn. Also determine if you'll be able to handle the work. Find out what level of academic rigor seems best for you.
Does it feel right?
When you make your final decision, it often comes down to your gut. Maybe it's the helpful professor or student you met—relationships you develop will be a core part of your college experience. Maybe it was the amazing research lab or art studio you visited. Sometimes you can't put your finger on it — maybe you just knew this college was right for you the minute you stepped on campus.
Of all the things to consider in your college search, there is one important factor that is a fundamental part of every college education. Namely, the education. Gauge how the schools you're considering stack up academically by asking these ten questions.
What kinds of students are typically admitted?
Look at the average test scores and high school GPAs of admitted students. Higher scores equal greater selectivity, which means increased academic rigor. Make sure this equation works in your favor.
What special academic opportunities are available?
See if student research, honors courses, or other specialized programs are available to undergraduate students. Your very first groundbreaking research project? Finding out if research opportunities exist.
How career-focused are the academic programs?
Check out how the coursework in your major syncs up with your career. If you need special certification (for a career like teaching), make sure you'll be able to get it.
How much emphasis is placed on essential professional skills?
Effective writing and problem-solving abilities will be valuable in any career. Although you'll concentrate on your major, these vital skills should be an equally important focus.
What are the qualifications of the faculty?
And what priority do they place on teaching undergrads? Research your potential professors, and be sure that the most qualified aren't only instructing at the graduate level.
How much out-of-class interaction is there between faculty and students?
Ask current students, or check individual faculty Web pages to see policies on office hours. Make sure your professors are just as invested in your education as you are.
Will you have access to career planning?
Determine whether the college has a dedicated career planning office. A top-notch academic program is much more rewarding if you can use it to get a job afterward.
What internship opportunities are available?
Many colleges have relationships with certain businesses or a deep reach into a particular industry. Maybe you'll find your dream job before you even leave campus.
What off-campus learning experiences are offered?
Want to travel the country or the world to dig deeper into your studies? For many students, the best thing about a college campus is leaving it every once in a while.
What successes have previous alumni had?
Find out where a college's graduates have earned advanced degrees and what they have accomplished in their careers.
Usually the first consideration in any college search is big public school or small private one. Each has its benefits, and you'll probably find schools in both categories on your final list. Here are ten reasons you might want to go to a private college.
They're more affordable than what you've been told.
The "high price" of private colleges is just a myth. Smaller colleges typically work with families individually to offer attractive financial aid packages. And unlike public universities, it doesn't matter if you're a state resident.
You won't get lost in a mob of students.
Private colleges tend to be smaller, and the classes are smaller, too. Many students prefer a more intimate learning environment as opposed to the arena-like classrooms of bigger public universities.
Your voice will be heard.
With smaller classes, you'll have a greater chance to contribute to the conversation. You'll have a true dialogue with professors and other students, during and after class.
You'll have support.
From your academic adviser to the career services office, at private colleges you'll find many people who can help you identify and achieve your career goals—and who genuinely care about your future success.
Your professors will know their stuff.
Classes and lab sessions are taught by professors, unlike public universities, where graduate students often lead the class.
You'll have greater access to research opportunities.
Private colleges are more likely to support research for undergraduate students. Faculty mentors are available to guide you through these learning experiences.
You'll find a college education that has value(s).
Private colleges often have a religious affiliation, but how that's expressed in campus life varies greatly. If spirituality is important to you, look for a school that reflects your beliefs.
You'll find a campus that feels more like home.
With a smaller student population and a more intimate campus, you'll know the people around you. It's also easier to take leadership roles on campus.
You'll have access to a committed alumni network.
With fewer graduates, alumni are more likely to work with new alumni to provide support and access to career opportunities. You'll become a member of an exclusive, yet powerful group.
You'll make a worthwhile investment.
According to a national survey, 77 percent of private, liberal arts college graduates rated their experience as "excellent," compared to 53 percent for graduates of leading public universities.
Choosing a college is a huge decision, so make it a team effort. Work closely with your child from the very beginning, and all that school pride can be yours, too (just don't overdo it in front of your child's new college friends).
Do your homework.
Maybe you've been planning for college since your child was in a onesie emblazoned with your alma mater's mascot, or maybe you're just getting started. Either way, your child is doing research. Join in.
Talk. A lot.
Then talk some more. You and your child must agree on a number of different topics. Establish them early and keep an open line of communication. You'll thank yourself later.
Have the money talk.
Resist your parental instinct to protect your child from harsh realities. Have a discussion early on about what financial limitations may exist and how to accept or overcome them. But remind them that paying for college doesn't have to be scary, if they do the work to find scholarships and other sources of funding.
Go on campus visits.
Do it while school is in session, don't try to make it a vacation, and definitely talk to strangers. The more questions you ask, the more answers you'll get. You know, just like in college.
Trust your child.
She knows what inspires her, what engages her, and what makes her happy. Discuss it in terms of study and career prospects and realistic goals, but at the end of the day (and at graduation), it's all about your child (see #10).
Trust your gut.
Your parental instincts are there for a reason. If you feel your child's college goals are unrealistic, let him know early (and give him an honest chance to convince you otherwise).
You have expectations of what college will be like, and so does your child—the real experience lies somewhere in between. Establish some give-and-take, and the process will work for everyone.
How far away is the school? How will your child get around campus and travel home for the holidays? Where will your child live, how will he eat, and who's paying for what? The time to ask (and answer) these questions is now.
Establish ground rules.
And a mechanism to enforce them. Enough said.
Remember: It's not about you.
The knowledge your child gains in college is hers. The friendships and mistakes she makes will be hers, too (though we're sure she'll share both). Keep that in mind, and college will teach you a lot.