Here is some advice I've compiled regarding selecting and attending auniversity in the US.

Finding Colleges

Though imperfect, the US News and WorldReportprovides a fairly accurate guideline to the best colleges in the US.Take the rankings with a grain of salt, but remember that the ranking ofthe university has some significance:

  • Universities with higher rankings typically have more funding for eachstudent
  • College name recognition makes finding a job much easier and bringsdesired companies to your school
  • Higher rankings are likely to attract students of a higher caliber

Rankings should by no means help you make your final decision, butlooking into the top colleges overall and in your field of interest willhelp give you a better idea of what makes these schools appealing, andperhaps what type of environment you would like out of those topchoices.

Do you have a particular interest in the field you would like to pursue?

If so, look at the faculty at each university who could be relevant toyour interests and more strongly consider colleges at which there is aconcentrated interest in a specific topic. Even if you do not have aspecific interest in a field, a department with a depth of knowledge ina particular area is likely to enhance the potential for learning'depth' throughout your undergraduate cirriculum.

CS Rankings, for example, is a websitededicated to tracking research output and weighting institutions basedon their graduate research strengths. Other disciplines have similarrankings systems that can be looked at for guidance.

What do you want to do outside of college?

The location of the university is one of the most important aspects ofthe decision. It'll determine what you have access to in your free time,the kind of people you'll connect with, the place you'll have the mostconnections in and eventually could play a hand in the location of youremployment. Read a bit about the 'personality' of the city or town thateach college resides in, watch some videos, and visit if you can. Theenvironment is the part of the college selection process that is mostdifficult to quantify, and takes knowing a bit more about what you wantto determine.

If you're looking into a smaller school or a school in a small town,make sure that the school or locale offers the resources to do thingsyou enjoy. You might be hard-pressed to find a golf course in Oberlin,Ohio, for example.

If you don't have a strong urge to live in a given place, that's fine –you'll be able to better optimize for academic interests, and you'relikely to meet plenty of friends at any college you choose to attend.

Assembling a List

Now that you have a variety of colleges you're interested in, it's timeto get a bit more realistic.

Applying to top schools with acceptance rates in the single digits ismore or less a lottery. Admissions staff spend as little as five minuteslooking at each application and colleges often select for a particularstudent profile – newsworthy accomplishments nonwithstanding, even thebest candidates can lose the college lottery.

The Portfolio

As such, it's best to develop a 'portfolio' of colleges with a varietyof different risk factors. Critically examine yourself, your scores, andyour extracirriculars and identify what colleges expect.

Colleges are required to report their 25th percentile and 75thpercentile SAT and ACT test scores for admissions, and often describewhat type of students they're looking for on their websites. You can usethis information in conjunction with other resources (described below)to determine if a school is right for you.

These factors depend on the individual and their circumstances, but youlikely want a spread similar to the following, assuming applications toabout ten different schools:

  • 2-3 top schools. These are the best schools money can buy in yourfield; the colleges you'd love to attend. Your test scores are a matchfor their high expectations and your extracirriculars may beconsidered by the colleges as defining characteristics. Regardless offinancial constraint, it's important to apply to at least one 'dream'institution – otherwise, you'll be left wondering what could havebeen.
  • 3-3 'match' schools. These are good schools you feel your profile is agood match for – they have relatively forgiving acceptance rates andyour test scores are compatible with their expectations. You would bevery happy attending one of these schools, and they provide a goodbalance between financial viability, quality of academics and otherconsiderations.
  • 2-3 'safety' schools. These are schools for which your test scores arein the 75th percentile or higher. They have high acceptance ratesrelative to your other choices and you're confident that you would beaccepted here. These may not be located in your favorite city, or maynot have the best ranked program, but they're good default options topursue in case your other applications don't go well.
  • 1-2 'scholarship' schools. These schools are safety schools that mightnot be as appealing academically, but carry financial benefit –they're schools that are very likely to provide a significant amountof merit-based financial aid. UT Dallas is a notable example of this –I'd recommend that everyone at least considers the school given theirwillingness to provide significant scholarships to out of state andinternational students to well-qualified students. Even if money iscurrently no object, financial circumstances can always change andit's good to be prepared for such an eventuality.Hereis a good place to start for finding such schools.

Unless you have a strong idea of what you want from your collegeexperience, it's a good idea to apply to a diverse group of colleges (interms of location, campus values and prestige) rather than focusing on aparticular type of school. After all, your perspective on what you wantfrom college will change during the application process and asacceptances (and reality) start to kick in as decision day approaches.


There are lots of good resources to look into regarding collegeapplications in the US. The Applying to Collegesubreddit and CollegeConfidential are both forums on whichstudents, admissions counselors, and parents seek and provide advice forstudents looking to find the right college. These forums are the bestplace to seek answers regarding college admissions.

It's easy to become caught up in their obsession over ranking andprestige. Your personal interests will always matter more than aperceived ranking or reputation that a certain college holds.

Specific admissions blogs can help you learn more about the individualexperiences of many college students, their individual collegeexperiences and their perspectives on the universities they attend. Oneof my favorites is the MIT admissionsblog – it has consistently greatwriting and genuine insight from MIT students with a variety ofbackgrounds.

The subreddits and Facebook groups for individual colleges (for example, provide insight into the day to day lives ofstudents on campus and can help you feel out the campus culture. Theseare relatively easy to find – just look up the college's name on theappropriate platform.

Do keep in mind that the students typically posting the most aretypically those with the most to complain about, though; read aboutcomplaints students have, but don't take them for granted as attributesof the school.

College 'vlogs' or 'tours' on YouTube are, in my opinion, the best wayto get a 'feel' for the university; there tend to be a few students atmost schools passionate about making such videos and showcasing theirexperiences. For example, here's one such video made by a friend atNortheastern.

Your Choice Doesn't Matter

Though this decision is an incredibly important one, don't spend toomuch time worrying about it. Wherever you go, you'll be able to find acommunity of those who with the same interests and professors who shareyour academic passions. You'll warm up to the location too.

College is just four years of your life; make the most of it, but don'tspend too much time worried. You'll have a good experience regardless ofwhere you end up.

Do I need to go to university?

article it's hard toknow who should take nontraditional paths, and many people are lookingfor validation not to do so. realistically, this is the best option formost people, both socially and academically.

  • Do I have things that I deeply want to spend a year of my lifeexploring and working on?
  • Do I have a way to support myself that leaves me time and energy togrow?
  • Can I really work self-directed for months at a time? Do I haveexamples of me working hard on a personal project or learning withoutexternal structure?
  • Do I have or can I learn the skills I need to work on this projectindependently?
  • Do I have sources of community, peer support or mentorship for what Iwant to do?

Harder to make friends without university. Cultivating the ability tofocus independently for an extended period of time before heading tocollege is ideal for many people to develop.