My daughter graduated from college recently. Simmons College in Boston was a perfect fit for her academically and socially. Lily had excellent professors, valuable internships, a solid grounding in graphic design, and she’s now employed in her field. Simmons was so right for her that we forgot how much research and preparation went into building her college list before she made her selection. We learned so much from building, then narrowing Lily’s list of potential colleges. Here are a few of the most valuable lessons.


List and Prioritize Must-Have Features

Before her search, Lily listed things she knew she wanted in a college. She had already chosen her major, which helped cross many colleges off her list. If you can’t choose yet, make an educated guess based on your goals, talents, and personality. One-third of college students change majors (and one in ten changes twice), so you’re in good company.

 When you assemble your college list, features you may want to consider include:

College Size

At small liberal arts colleges, it’s easier to meet with professors and have conversations in small classes. A large school offers more variety in courses, clubs, and social opportunities, but classes can be large and can feel impersonal.


Professors at small colleges wear many hats, doing research, publishing, teaching, and giving individual attention to students. Such schools have few teaching assistants. Large universities rely heavily on TAs to teach and grade. You might hear lectures from world-class professors at a major university, but may not meet with them one-on-one.

Class Sizes

Small colleges often have classes of ten students or fewer. It’s easy to get to know professors at such schools; you can expect more one-on-one instruction. However, smaller schools offer fewer classes, and repeat them less often. There isn’t as much variety there as at a large university.

Health Needs

If you have a health condition requiring regular medical visits or emergency care, consider a university with a medical school. They provide round-the-clock medical assistance. If you think you’ll require mental health care, ask about on-campus counseling services.

Neuroatypical students might enjoy a big school with large clubs of other such students. That can make socializing more comfortable. If you find large campuses daunting, small colleges may be appealing. They are also more navigable and can be more convenient for people with limited mobility. However, large schools have more experience dealing with students with special challenges, and often have more policies and procedures set in place than smaller schools.


How ethnically and culturally diversity is each college on your list? How welcoming and supportive are they? How accessible is the campus for people with disabilities? What are ratios of male to female faculty and students? How large and active is the school’s LGBTQ population?

Check out statistics about campus diversity online. Talk with students during campus visits. Or call the admissions office and ask to connect with a current student or recent grad with your background or interests.

College Types

Would you prefer a college dedicated to one field, like an art school or a music conservatory, or a university with many majors? Most require a certain percentage of classes outside your major. College is a great time to explore new subjects. Students often find that new fields captivate them and lead to exciting careers or life-altering changes in perspective.

But college is expensive. Focusing heavily on your major can save time and money. Taking extra classes in your major does prepare you for your career. Schools with a single focus often have strong connections to professionals in their field; those networks provide helpful career assistance. However, a broader educational background may make you more marketable and flexible later.

The term “liberal arts college” is often misunderstood. Don’t ignore such schools if you want to focus on business or a STEM subject. For example, Wellesley College has an impressive economics department; Harvey Mudd is known for its strong math and engineering departments; and Reed College has the world’s only nuclear reactor operated by liberal arts undergrads.

Financial Aid

The perfect school isn’t perfect if it offers little aid and you’ve little money. What resources do you have? Can you take on debt? Some colleges with high tuitions reward large financial aid packages to students, bringing costs down significantly. Look into discounted public school tuition rates for in-state students. Consider work-study opportunities, but fulfill those work obligations, or you might have a sticky situation at semester’s end.

Social Life

Some want fraternities or sororities. Others build social lives around sports. Big-city colleges give access to cultural activities. Maybe you’d like to be near family on weekends. Can the social life you want coexist with your academic goals? How is public transportation? Consider how isolated or active a campus is.

Honors Programs

Some schools have honors tracks that focus on classics or creating long-term projects. Some students thrive in such environments; others find the workload and separation from mainstream students can diminish their social experiences.

Access to Resources

If you study physics, a university with a linear accelerator or Nobel Prize-winning physicists sounds fantastic. But do undergrads have access to such resources? If you want to assist with biomedical research, will your school let you? If your potential college boasts a collection of rare manuscripts, are you allowed to study them, or are they reserved for grad students?


Is the college religiously affiliated? Are religion classes or attendance at services required? Such schools vary widely in political climates, acceptance of sexual behaviors or orientations, and other social habits. Talk to current students for more accurate insights into real-life campus culture.


Narrowing Your College List

Once Lily had a list of her wants and needs, she prioritized them. Which aspects of college living were essential? Which were optional? Which were unwanted?

If you want to include a school that really doesn’t fit, reassess your sorting criteria. Should you be more flexible? Make sure to consider financial aid, location, and on-campus resources.


College Visits Help

Once Lily narrowed colleges down to a manageable number, she researched them online. Most wrote about student success rates and what made them special. Many now offer online video tours.

Online research is great, but it can’t replace visits. Seeing surroundings and facilities clarifies things. You interact with students and faculty and sense the campus vibe. You understand so much that you can’t see online.

Before each visit, gather questions you want answered. Popular subjects include:

  • Study-abroad opportunities
  • Athletic programs
  • On-campus medical and counseling services
  • The size of their Greek system, if applicable
  • Internship or community service options or requirements
  • Course distribution requirements
  • Transportation to nearby cities
  • Crime statistics
  • Dorm-life options (e.g., quiet dorms, foreign language dorms, off-campus living, etc.)
  • Rates of job placement and acceptance at grad schools

With online search, you’ll see what infrastructure they’re investing in. How do endowments and expenses compare to similar colleges? Are they financially sound? Will they need to scale back on faculty, classes, or facilities soon?

When college visits are impractical, check out colleges’ social media presence. The next best thing to talking to students during college visits is asking questions online, or seeing what info they’ve already volunteered. Also, look for college and professor review sites and check out student YouTube videos. Go beyond school-sponsored presentations; see what actual students have to say about their experiences to help you in drawing up your college list. 

Another great way to learn about real college life is through a near-peer college mentor. CollegeVine’s mentors do more than help teens choose classes and extracurriculars and prepare for standardized tests. They provide insights into the college-application process, challenges, and opportunities. They’re successful, high-achieving students at top schools. They can answer pertinent questions and help you define your focus and become more competitive in the run-up to college acceptance.


Do Some Sleuthing

Even impressive institutions have weaknesses. One prestigious college had a beautiful campus, great student tours, and renowned alumni. Though famous for creative thinkers, it provided weak fine arts curricula. When my daughter asked about courses in graphic design, they responded, “We don’t offer that, but you can build your own major!” While some like the freedom to fashion individual educational environments, Lily wanted graphic design to be an established priority for her college. She sought a rigorous, defined curriculum to compete with designers with art-college degrees. She didn’t feel a school with a design-your-own-curriculum bent would provide enough structure and guidance.

Another university had important outdoor sculptures and a solid graphic design rep. The tour was good, and Lily’s meeting with the head of the department went well. But the art building seemed outdated. The college art gallery was locked and empty though classes were in session. Our impression was that the department was underfunded and overlooked, and that quality artistic representation was a low priority. That visit provided essential information we couldn’t learn online.


Keep an Open Mind

There are over 4,600 degree-conferring higher education institutions in the U.S. If your dream college doesn’t work out, there are many excellent alternatives. Be flexible as you build your college list. Note what you truly need, what you don’t want, and what surprises you discover. There’s a great college out there for you.

Laura Grey

Laura Grey

Laura Grey is an alumna of Mills College and the mother of a Simmons College graduate. Laura’s liberal arts education has served her well over the course of her writing and editing career, and she’s a big supporter of the women’s college experience. She enjoys writing film and music reviews, creating art, studying history and incorporating Godzilla figurines into her holiday decorating.
Laura Grey