Prab Singh heads CollegeSource (http://thecollegesource.net/), an organisation that provides life coaching to adolescents and support to their family through the process of deciding their higher education and career goals.
I often liken the process of approaching your college search to that of having a friend from out of town come to visit and ask to be taken to the mall. If your friend then said, “Take me to the best store here,” your likely response would be, “Well, what do you want?” Similarly, you should approach college search the same way, deciding first what you are looking for. Most families will start with thinking about the student’s chances of getting in or the ‘prestige’ of the college through things like rankings or name brand. While both of those are areas that you should consider, they are not the elements that will make a student happy, or successful. So start with some key preferences. I have described some below, but feel free to make this as specific to your own preferences as you would like. There are over 3000 universities in the US alone, so narrowing down to what makes a school good ‘for you’ will greatly help you in choosing these.
Academic Life: What are your academic interests? Not necessarily your ‘Major'; that may change and is one of the great things about the flexibility of the US Undergrad program – just think about what areas are you interested in. What is your academic ability? We often think that getting into the most selective college, whether we are academically capable of dealing with it or not, is the best thing. But just ask an overwhelmed student mid way through the semester what he thinks of this logic. Sometimes it might be better to be the Big fish in a Small pond.
Size: If you thrive at a small school where there is a lot of individual attention, you may not be happy at a large university. Larger schools may be very exciting, have amazing sports and a huge choice of great majors and professors, but you may be more successful in a place where accountability is built in with smaller classes and getting to know your faculty.
Location and Setting: This includes geographical area as well as setting (rural, suburban, urban college town). Try to imagine what it will be like in those environments; and don’t forget to consider the weather! Remember, you will be there for 4 years! If you like to be near theatre, museums, and nightlife, you may want to reconsider a rural college that has little access to the cultural offerings of a city-based school.