Choosing what college you go to is bound to be one of the hardest decisions you’ll make in your life. In some careers, your college will determine whether you can get a job; in others, only the degree matters. In either case, what college you choose will influence your financial future for years to come (unless you’re lucky enough to be able to pay tuition out-of-pocket!) As CollegeBoard will tell you, “There’s no magic formula for choosing a college, but there are steps you can take to find a good fit.” Here are a few of those steps now.

1. What is your major?

Most people start considering what colleges they’re going to apply to during their sophomore or junior year of high school. That’s a hard decision to make, considering most 16-17 year olds have no idea what they want to do with the rest of their life. If you’re one of the lucky ones with a pretty good idea of where you want to be, start here; not every college offers every major, and many have specialties.

2.     Does your major require an Ivy League or other prestigious college?

If you want to be a governor, a lawyer, or a doctor, the difference between Harvard and Howard University is massive. However, if you want to be a journalist, your employer will probably only remember what college you graduated from for a week after he/she hires you – if that. If you don’t need a private or Ivy League college, choose based on price, not the bells and whistles.

3. What can you afford?

The worst thing you can do for your financial future is get yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars in a debt in a career that will never pay that off. Look at your financial package before you start choosing a college. What can your parents contribute? Can you do work-study? Can you get scholarships?

If you really have some time to consider this, figure out what kind of loans you might get yourself into if you choose your dream school, and divide that debt by 120 (monthly payments for 10 years). It’s not a perfect system, because there are many variables (such as interest) that are hard to predict. But that will give you a guess at what your monthly payments will have to be. If you’re looking at payments of $500 a month, and your career pays $30,000 a year… you may need to reconsider your college. Banks and colleges will downplay this issue, but be smart about it – if you can’t afford a private college, you can find a way to make do with a public one.

NOTE: for other money-saving tips, look for our articles on college transfers, community colleges, PSEO, and CLEP exams. All of these things can help you get the most college, for the least amount of money.

4. Your test scores.

Look… plenty of people will tell you that you’re more than your test scores, and they’re absolutely right. But if you botched the SAT and ACT, and it wasn’t because you were sick with a head cold… you have to consider if you’re going to be able to get into an Ivy League in the first place. Maybe you need to do some more prep and try the tests again, but if you got less than average scores, you may need to stick with public universities with higher acceptance rates. (If this contradicts with your conclusions for one and two… sorry to be blunt, but you may need to set more realistic goals!)

5.     In-state or out-of-state?

Out-of-state tuition can sometimes be two or three times more than in-state. Maybe you’ve looked at the finances and you can afford to pay that much on the salary you’re hoping for… but do understand that, if you’re taking out loans, you’re running on borrowed time and money. For most people, an in-state college is going to make life a lot easier once the repayment period begins.

6.     Where will you be living?

If you’re going with an out-of-state school, you may need to stay in a dorm. And in fact, many people might tell you that you need to stay in a dorm to get the “full college experience.” It’s true that living in a dormitory exposes you to a different set of college experiences; but what cost are you paying for that experience? Living on your own is fun, but it will cost you down the line. Do consider greatly whether you can set up an office in your parents’ basement… before you end up living off Ramen noodles and missing how your sheets at home smell.

7.     College Board’s search tool

Once you’ve decided what you need, try College Board’s interactive college search. The best thing about this search is that it allows you to save it for later (if you have an account). Start by being as vague as possible – for example, all colleges within 100 miles of you with $50,000 tuition maximum that offer your degree. You might get 100 or so colleges this way – save them all. This is your hard line about what colleges you have to choose from, and you’ll want to go back to that list often. After that point, it’s all about prioritizing experience, amenities, and values until you find your top 3-5 colleges towards which you will apply.

Good luck and happy schooling!


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