You did it! After all the hours of filling out applications, begging for letters of recommendation, drafting and redrafting essays about what makes you unique or special or a worthwhile candidate for admission. After the weeks and weeks of waiting...YOU DID IT! YOU GOT IN!!! And not only did you get into one school, but you got into two...three...four...ten? And although you thought that the application process couldn’t possibly be any more stressful, it turns out that applying was a piece of cake compared to the agony of actually picking the right school.

So how do you pick the right school? After all, you are about to commit to someplace for four, in some cases five, years. We’re not talking about deciding which pair of shoes to buy; this is of tremendous consequence. Lucky for you, we have some tips.

Step One: Consider what each school is offering

When picking where to go, your first instinct may be to only consider the academics. However, it is important to remember that college isn’t only a place where you will study, but where you will live, socialize, and engage with others. As a result, it is important to look at the school more globally than just the sum of its classes and professors. A Big Ten school can have tens of thousands of students, and will boast a huge athletic program. A small liberal arts school will have low student to teacher ratio, but at the end of your first year you may know every person on campus. Have you envisioned yourself involved in the Greek system or rowing crew or spending your weekends surfing? Look beyond the academic offerings and get a sense of the lifestyle you may be living for the next few years.  

Step Two: Location, Location, Location

It matters. How far away from home are you willing to go? Right now you may be thinking: As far as I can get! But be realistic for a minute. When flu season hits and all you want is a bowl of your mom’s chicken soup, will you be OK living across two time zones, or would you prefer a 30 minute ride on the El? A rural school may sound idyllic, until you realize the only entertainment is a mall with an Applebee’s and a WalMart. A large metropolis on a crisp fall day is pretty chic, but you’ll quickly learn to step over bags of trash and pools of dog urine. Give location a thought. After all, you’re not just choosing a place to learn, but a place to live!

Step Three: Don’t forget the cost

Getting in is hard; paying for it is harder. In some cases, a hefty price tag can be a deal breaker. Before making a decision, sit down and lay out all the costs. Yes there is tuition, but there is also room and board, textbooks, transportation, and a social life to consider. Expenses can pile up and it is important to be realistic as to what you and your family can afford. Fortunately, many higher learning institutions offer financial aid packages that include scholarships, grants, work study programs, and other forms of assistance that do not need to be repaid; these packages allow students to receive an education without accruing a huge debt. Do some research, call the Offices of Financial Aid, and be pragmatic. You want a good education, but you don’t want to pay for it for the rest of your life.

Step Four: Focus on features that matter to you

Every school brags about its academics and alumni network; but take a closer look, is that school’s strength your personal interest? Which has a Great Books program? Which one works extensively with the community? Which boasts a social service graduation requirement? Think about the things that matter to you and pick the school that best reflects those values and interests.

Step Five: Make another visit

Once you have your top choices narrowed down, make another visit. The official tour shows you the highlights, now go back and take a closer look. How is the campus laid out? Is it easy to get around? Will you be relying on public transportation, or will you need a car? What is the state of the dorms? The library? The science building? These are the details that you may have overlooked, but your mom or dad will have a more pragmatic perspective (such as noticing the condition of the washer and dryers!) and you should approach this visit with a more critical eye. If possible, talk to someone who is currently attending the school. They will have the ins and outs and might share some valuable intel.

Step Six: Be honest with yourself

As you pick a college, don’t just focus on the school with the best reputation or the highest pedigree. While it is important to receive a good education, remember that all accredited colleges and universities will grant you access to excellent instruction and impressive faculty. So don’t pick a school for the bragging rights, or because it’s where your girlfriend is going, or because your brother goes there and says the parties are insane. Pick a school because it’s where you see yourself growing, improving, and contributing. Pick a school that will help you become the very best version of you.