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Finding the Right College

Within that larger context comes the type of campus. This is best answered by a series of summer visits to a range of local campuses that may help you answer that question. I put very strong weight to visiting schools. The primary litmus test should be walking around a campus, at least twice (summer and fall), and saying and feeling, “I really like it here.” We are talking about “fit.” Most of life is about “fit.” If we are making good choices, finding the right people, places, and things that fit our needs and personality at any given point in our lifespan, chances are we will end up with a life we feel good about.

There are literally thousands of colleges with more openings than there are students. Everyone can go to college, even if you have terrible grades or learning disabilities or other handicaps to deal with. The costs also vary widely and the availability of financial aid increases with your flexibility about college choice.

Where to Start

Let’s assume you are going to stay within the U.S. borders. So pick up one of those very fat Barron’s or Peterson’s, and begin to go page by page, quickly reading about hundreds of options in areas of the country that interest you. It’s actually a fun process. Between that and visiting some local campuses you will begin to develop a list of colleges that you might like to attend. It should not matter if no one has heard of some of the schools. It should not matter if you could “do better.”

Don’t waste time with so-called reach schools. What a twisted concept that has become. “Reach” has become a source of much of the stress and disappointment that students and parents experience. Apply to schools where your background fits with their criteria. That still doesn’t mean that you’ll get accepted. But the notion of a “reach school” is embedded in the myths we’ve already debunked. You don’t have to go to the highest-rated school possible.

As you narrow your list, begin to visit schools. Summer tours are great family trips. If it’s a long distance, with today’s low-priced airlines, you and at least one parent can afford to go most anywhere. Sometimes a couple of friends will travel on their own to some faraway schools, making it into a summer adventure that expands your world.

What Will Really Matter

That’s the secret that underlies the most important reason for not driving yourself crazy with worry about making the right choice. There is no way to predict how it will all play out and influence the outcome of your life. There have been some recent movies that played upon that idea – redoing a simple act such as catching or missing a subway train, and how that can alter the path of your life.

I remember a senior who was so disappointed that he had to choose his “safety school” (another concept I dislike — if you are choosing a proper list, you don’t need a “safety school,” which by definition is a place you don’t really want to attend but apply to just to make sure you have a college to attend). This senior went to his safety school and came back to see me the following summer. He loved the school. Why? He had made some great friends and that gave a quality to the experience that overshadowed everything else. In addition, he found the faculty to be very accessible and he enjoyed many of his classes more than he had expected.

The point is you have no idea whom you might meet – a lifelong best friend, your future significant other, a professor who plays a special role in helping you “find yourself,” or someone you end up starting a business with. This can happen anywhere and you never know where or when something significant like that will occur. It is accepting that there is a great deal of serendipity to life and much that we have no control over that makes the whole process of choosing a college much simpler and more relaxed.

Like I said earlier, pick a nice place you want to live for the next four years and use the time as one of life’s transitions, learning to live on your own, expanding your universe of friends and experiences, and, oh yes, taking a few courses that you might actually remember years later!

Finding the Right College

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). Finding the Right College. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.