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Your College Search: 7 Key Factors for Choosing the Best College

Choosing a college where you’ll spend the next two or four years can be overwhelming, but doing your research and being prepared with questions will help you sort the campuses you love from those you don’t.

The New York State Higher Education Services Corp. (HESC) offers college planning and financial aid tools to help you make the best choices as you select a college. HESC is the State’s student financial aid agency that helps people pay for college.

Summer is a great time to make college tours with your family, since you can plan a travel route and visit several colleges during a short period of time. Campus tours are usually available during school breaks and can be scheduled through the admissions office. Review their websites before you travel so you can focus on the qualities that make each college interesting to you when you arrive.

While you will ask many questions of the college admissions staff, be sure to ask questions of your student tour guide to get the student point-of-view. Print a copy of HESC's College Comparison Chart and Checklist and bring it with you as you visit colleges and college fairs. Keep a folder for each college for review later.

Here are seven factors that will influence your college choice:

1 - Admissions
A review of the college admissions website may answer most of your questions. You’ll need to find out about admissions requirements, deadlines, standardized test requirements and any other required documentation.

Students and parents may spend hundreds of dollars on application fees, so knowing more about the college before you apply can help you target your application dollars more effectively. If you can’t afford application fees, some colleges may waive them.

2 - Academics
Your academic choices and achievements will shape your future; review the rigors and reputation of each college’s programs carefully. You’ll want to review the course offerings in the printed or online catalog and ask about the faculty when you visit. Will the majority of the courses be taught by faculty or teaching assistants and what is the ratio of faculty to students? How accessible is individual assistance?

You’ll want to ask when you must declare a major field; some students know right away what their major will be, but others may wish to fill their general academic requirements before deciding. Some academic programs require you to apply for admission separately from the college admission, so be sure to find out ahead of time.

Ask the college admissions advisor about how many students complete a Bachelor’s degree in four years; if it takes longer, ask why. Also ask about career placement assistance as you approach graduation and how many graduates successfully gain employment in their chosen field.

3 - Cost and Financial Aid
The cost of a four-year degree can be a surprise to families, but the majority of students receive financial aid, reducing the overall cost of college.

It’s important to know in advance the total cost of college, or “cost of attendance.” The college admissions website provides the cost of attendance and may offer a net price calculator to refine information based on your personal circumstances. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator provides side-by-side comparisons of the net price and other factors at selected colleges for students and families.

Find complete information about federal and State financial aid including the New York State Tuition Assistance Program, scholarships and NYHELPs college loans at hesc.ny.gov.

If you qualify for Federal Work Study or plan to work on or near the campus while at college, ask about the kinds of jobs available and how to get one. You will also want to ask about any institutional aid in the form of grants, scholarships or loans that may be available and the deadline for applying.

4 - Residential Life
Living on campus provides experiences that will stay with you all through your adult life…the friends you make, the activities and programs you can access are all a part of living on campus. You’ll be spending 24/7 on campus several months of the year, so it’s important to feel comfortable. Your campus tour group may include a visit to a dorm; don’t pass up this opportunity to see what campus living is like.

A review of the residential life page of the college website will answer many of your basic questions such as laundry facilities, security and computer network availability. You may also want to ask more specific questions about the living arrangements: how many roommates will you have? Does the campus expect this to increase because of higher enrollments? Will the college guarantee on-campus housing for all four years or will you have to make off-campus arrangements after a certain period?

You don’t expect to get sick while at college, but ask to see the college infirmary, if there is one. If not, ask where students go locally to get prescriptions refilled or get medical attention when needed. Your family’s medical insurance should cover your needs while on campus, but ask your insurance carrier about health coverage while at college to be sure.

Many campuses work hard to please the wide range of tastes and cuisine students expect. If possible, go to one of the dining halls during your visit to experiencethe food …and, ask students where they like to eat most of their meals.

Planning to bring a car to campus? As a freshman, you may not be able without special approval. Most campuses have limited parking, so check out the parking fees and public transportation availability. You may not need a car on campus at all.

5 - Student Life
Your college experience will be enhanced by the student programs provided on campus, especially if you are planning to attend a college far from urban conveniences. You’ll want to know what it’s like on campus and the surrounding community during the week-ends. While visiting the campus, take a drive around the community…is it safe? Is there shopping nearby? Does the college provide programs during the freshman year to help students make the adjustment to campus life? Is there a strong school spirit? Ask about Greek life if you are interested in joining a fraternity or sorority.

6 - Athletics
If you are planning to participate in varsity sports, there are very important questions you will need to ask the coach and management staff during your interviews. As you may know, there are differences in expectations and responsibilities between NCAA Division I, II, and III athletics programs. Detailed information about participating as a student-athlete can be found on the college website or at the NCAA Eligibility Center.

7 - Other Considerations
If you are planning to study performing or studio arts be sure to ask about studio or practice availability; is there adequate locker space for your personal supplies or instruments; are drafting or art tables supplied or will you need your own; if piano is a requirement for music majors, are there enough keyboards for each person in the class and are they in good repair?

Check the computers, labs and other technologies that you will use to be sure they are up-to-date. Take a tour of the library to check the condition of the books and other reference materials.

If any of your prospective colleges are far from home, consider how you will travel to and from campus and the cost. Short distances can be made by car, but those further from home may require bus, train or air travel. Think about how often you’d like to return home for visits and factor in travel time and costs as you make your college decisions. Keep in mind that major holidays are also busy travel times and reservations may have to be made well in advance to assure a ride home at a price you can afford.

Going on college visits and tours can be fun, but the time and expense of attending college make it very important to choose your college wisely. A little research and preparation ahead of your visit can go a long way to helping you choose the best college.

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updated 03/25/2014