Not all colleges are created equal - and thank goodness for that because otherwise there are way too many to choose from! But what makes a school better or worse is completely personal to the student applying.
As you build your college list, you want to analyze benefits and drawbacks according to what will help you achieve your life goals.
Even if you don’t yet know what you want to do for a career, there is still a lot you know about which environments will encourage you to do your very best.
These are the most important criteria when pitting colleges against each other for the honor of receiving your application:
- Academic programs
- Extracurricular programs
- Daily life
This article will outline the details of each and give you specific questions and examples to consider - so read carefully.
What you’ve heard about these 7 essential factors vs. what the reality is, may not be the same.
If you are having trouble finding info about individual schools, you can always google any school’s “Common Data Set” to get exact numbers on the makeup of the current student body.
You could also reach out to your prospective school’s college admissions office and use them as the valuable resource they are for prospective students.
Be sure to read to the end for some tried and true advice for what NOT to consider when comparing colleges, too.
It will probably surprise you.
Now let’s get down to the business of weeding through and understanding what the top choice colleges are specifically for you.
When you look at the numbers, don’t stop at the price of admission. That is never going to be the full story.
When considering the cost of one college against another, look closely at these three things to develop a well-rounded, personalized picture of the best-fit college for you:
How Much Does The College Really Charge?
Every college costs more than the sticker price listed under “yearly tuition.”
You'll want to consider tuition plus room & board, lab fees, books, transportation, etc. (don't forget a bit of extra spending cash for late-night snacks during finals week).
How Much Financial Aid Does The College Offer?
What you personally have to pay might end up being less than the sticker price, even with all the bells and whistles.
If you are determined by the school to have need, Northwestern was able to meet 100% of need for their 2020-2021 need-based students.
According to Harvard, 1 in 5 of their students don’t pay to attend.
Other schools might reward students in merit scholarships to bring the price down (whether they have need or not). University of Alabama offers merit scholarships based on a student's GPA and SAT/ACT test scores. What's even better is that you don't have to have an amazing test score to qualify either.
Dig around in the details of the numbers to see how much your prospective schools help their student body with money.
What Is The Return On Investment For This College?
Is it a smart investment? What will you get in return for how hard it’s going to be?
Look at the median earnings of graduates 10 years after graduation.
Look at the student loan debt.
Out of the thousands of higher education institutions in the world, you can find one that meets your needs and doesn’t require you to go into lifelong debt.
If you need help finding that perfect fit college, invest in a little time doing March Consulting’s College Comparison Data Dive. With our expert guidance, you’ll be able to spend a little money now to get a lot of money for college (as well as save yourself a ton of extra time and effort on the complicated college admissions process).
A classic bigger-isn’t-always-better type scenario.
Or is it?
Only YOU can say.
Bigger is not inherently better or worse when it comes to comparing colleges.
When analyzing the benefits, it’s less about the literal size and more about what kind of impact that size has on what you’re trying to accomplish.
You know the stories.
From Star Wars to Survivor, we can see how strength comes in many forms and the winner of the game is the one who understands which kind of strength applies best according to the particular challenge you are facing.
So when it comes to schools, you want to think in terms of what effect you are seeking in your personal story.
- Do you need the facilities and resources of a big institution for very specialized training?
- Are you someone who will succeed best in a small community where classes are mostly discussion-based rather than lectures?
- Do you want unlimited departmental offerings because you aren’t sure what to study, or are you only interested in following a more efficient, narrow, prescriptive path?
- Are you the type of student who craves anonymity and independence, or who rises better to any challenges when the professor knows you by name?
Spend some quality time thinking and talking about it with people you trust.
No answer is inherently good or bad.
There are advantages and disadvantages with every option.
Much trending research suggests that our peers may have a longer-lasting effect on us than our teachers do.
That is not to say that teachers don’t matter.
They are essential to shaping our learning journey and should be celebrated for the magnificent service they provide to the world. We’ll talk about how they should be considered in college comparisons next.
In the meantime, however, many students focus more on the teachers than they do on their classmates.
That’s a mistake.
Rank schools for yourself according to the types of students you’ll be surrounded by as well as the professors.
Just think about the psychological questions around social media, group-think, etc. We are only increasingly programmed to react strongly to people we compare ourselves to - which is more often our peers than our teachers.
For example, in a study done by Michigan State University, researchers found that students scored higher on finals if their peers gave them justification for the importance and life-applicability of the class.
We are heavily influenced by our peers. Choose yours intentionally.
- How do you compare to the current student population? Use the Common Data Set stats (ACT/SAT scores, GPA, etc.) to determine not only whether or not you’re likely to be accepted, but whether you’re likely to be bored or in over your depth.
- Will you find like-minded students, people to connect and thrive with?
- Will you be challenging yourself and able to expand your horizons?
- Does the student body seem to have similar interests to you outside of the classroom?
The culture you immerse yourself in will have profound ramifications on who you become.
The Faculty And Staff
Your mentors, your teachers, your guides. Choose wisely.
- Is there someone you’re dying to work with?
- Do you have a personal connection that could give you a leg-up in quickly building your school network?
- Are they professionals currently practicing in their field?
- Is their curriculum innovative, or does it feel like they’re there more for money than to find the best way to teach you something?
Though certainly not a perfect system, RateMyProfessor.com is a possible resource for looking up what current and past students have to say.
(Just keep in mind that some people use it purely as a platform for venting or perpetuating an inside joke, so don’t use it as the only measuring stick.)
Just as you’re spending time right now crafting a well-rounded application to get into college, you want to choose a college that will give you an equally well-rounded opportunity to get into wherever you want to go next.
Plus give you an enjoyable time getting there.
Put yourself in the mindset of a-few-years-from-now you and think about:
- Are you going to need a residency after undergrad?
- Is a Ph.D. in the cards after graduation?
- Is there a specific company you have your heart set on that will become more of a reality through a specific college department?
- Do the classes sound useful?
- Does it feel like you could use their program tracks to build a career?
- Are they accredited in the way you need them to be?
- Do they have the economic and physical resources that will be the most beneficial to you?
How long does it take to get a bachelor’s degree?
Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees are usually designed to take four years. But depending on the school and the student, it can be longer or shorter.
Remember, not every profession actually requires you to get a bachelor’s degree.
There are incredibly lucrative professions that get started with an associate’s degree or a trade certification.
Don’t limit yourself to what “everyone else” (whoever they are) is doing.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your activities outside of the classroom.
This is an essential opportunity to build your network, gain invaluable life experience, and make sure you’re enjoying life during college as much as creating a life you’ll enjoy later.
Many schools have an entire department, like this one at Duke, dedicated entirely to applying and expanding your studies in whatever way will be most enriching for you.
- Tulane has over 200+ student organizations. But if they don’t already have a cookies & coloring club for you, they also have exceptional resources to help you start your own organization.
- Study abroad? Yes please. Want your campus to be a 14th century medieval castle in the Netherlands? Emerson’s got you covered. It’s even got a moat.
- Notre Dame is exemplary in many areas, and community service is one of them. Think about social justice and outreach as a way to engage with the community you’re going to be a part of.
Also remember, just like dating, you want a school that wants you as much as you want them.
What will they get out of having you there?
Do their offerings reflect your philosophies and will they value your experience or interests?
The Daily Life
You will be spending so much time at this campus - take more than a little bit of time upfront to imagine your next few years there.
- What’s your gut reaction?
- What are their dorms like?
- Any good on-campus food?
- What are the most popular activities outside of the classroom?
- Is it important to you that the college have a religious affiliation?
- What is their online learning portal like? (You’d be surprised how frustrating and complicated the navigation systems are, even for some of the institutions that have the most money!) **
**This becomes even more important if you’re thinking about getting an online degree. Make sure to spend some time poking around their websites and whatnot. You’ll have to look at those logos and layouts quite a bit before your schooling is done.
Things To Ignore When You Compare Colleges
Here are the four things you may be concerned about that, actually, aren’t helpful and could work against your happiness in the long run.
They do not mean what you think they mean. They’re mostly about politics and money.
See above. Don’t go into debt for one simple line on your resume. Reputation won't mean anything if you have to fight six thousand others for that one research assistant position. Think more about what you're going to have access to and what you'll do with your time there.
It’s not irrelevant, per se, but it’s not essential unless you have a specific locational need.
In terms of weather, you can endure it for a great program.
In terms of tuition, don’t leave options off the table just because you think you might not be able to afford out-of-state tuition. There are many options to help with that including out-of-state tuition discounts, tuition exchange programs, and merit scholarships.
Don’t believe us or think you’re not a good enough student to qualify for merit-based aid?
We can help you make it happen with a solid college list and a rock star college application plan to go with it.
A lower acceptance rate doesn’t mean a school is better.
Yes, you’ll have to work harder and seek more help to get admitted, but it shouldn’t dictate whether or not you want to attend.
Next Best Steps
Unsure where to start? Don’t let worry overwhelm you.
If you get stumped, use this list of great questions for college admissions officers to jump-start what you want to think about.
For more help, sign up for a private College Comparison Data Dive, where we uncover and analyze all of these comparison points with you and your family. It’s an invaluable tool, especially for making college admissions easier and making college more affordable.
If you just have a question that’s plaguing you, send us a message so we can get it answered!