We use cookies to personalize and improve your browsing experience. 

To learn more about how we store and use this data, visit our privacy policy here.

The overall culture of your college may play as big a role in your future success as your degree. Figuring out what’s important to you in a college will help you narrow the field when choosing the right fit, and you may discover some options that hadn’t even been on your radar!

Identifying basic colleges and universities criteria

Starting your college search with the basics will help you identify the colleges that will best suit you academically and personally. Each of us has unique needs and values, and what is important to you may not matter to someone else. Take location, for instance. If you don’t want to be more than 100 miles from home, then schools on the other side of the globe are out! The same goes for school size, cost, and other basic college criteria. By identifying your needs early on, you can eliminate hundreds of schools and focus on the things that will make your school a perfect fit.


Obviously, academics play a huge role in determining the right school for you. But so does location. Where do you want to study? Is year-round sunshine a must for your mental health, or does the call of the winter ski season require a more diverse climate? Perhaps you hope to compose essays in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, or maybe you prefer the comforts of home. College is both an education and a journey, so consider what type of location you hope to experience when exploring college information.


You should also consider the ambience of your surroundings when choosing a college. If you can’t live without nightlife, think city! If you’re into the great outdoors, you might want to go rural. There are colleges in every environment you can imagine, from tiny towns in Minnesota to the middle of Manhattan.

If you’ve always lived in the suburbs, an urban campus can be an adventure. But after a few weeks, will you yearn for grassy fields and open space? On the other hand, if you’re used to malls and movie theaters and choose a college in a rural area, will you be racing into the student center at midnight, desperately seeking noise, lights, and people? When examining the options in a college guide, think about where you grew up and how much of a change you want.


Don’t forget to consider the sizes of the schools in your college search. Colleges come in all sizes, from a school in California that enrolls only 26 students to a university like Penn State that can enroll 30,000 or more. Which one is better? That depends on you.

  • Did you go to a small high school or a large one?
  • Did you grow up in a city or a rural area?
  • Do you like being places where everybody knows you, or do you like the anonymity of a crowd?

Large schools typically have large campuses, as well as a healthy selection of student services and things to do; a small college may offer individualized attention, as well as a more intimate and personalized experience. You might even want to think about how far you want to walk to get from one class to another. Even those little details of college info may affect your decision.


The different types of schools on your list can often be overlooked when you’re considering college criteria, but you should keep in mind that all colleges and universities are not the same.

  • What do they devote time and resources to: research or teaching and learning?
  • Do they have a speciality in one specific area or are they known for providing a broad education?
  • Are they single sex or coed?
  • Do they have a religious affiliation?
  • Are they public or private?

There are also historically Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, schools with co-op programs, and many with large evening and part-time programs. A college guide typically provides important facts about each school’s type and characteristics. Your options are almost limitless and your personal learning style, preferences, and available resources will help you find the place where you’ll best succeed.

Cost, scholarships, and financial aid

The cost of college is one thing that most parents think about during the college search process. Not all colleges and universities have the same price tag and there are a variety of ways to cut your costs. Most schools offer financial aid, scholarships, and work-study programs, aside from student loans.

Consider your special talents outside of the classroom. You may qualify for a full ride if you can carry a tune or a football (or both), while making the grade. Even if you don’t get a full ride, every little bit helps.

Public universities often offer much lower tuition rates to in-state students, but their fees to out-of-state residents are usually similar to private schools. Private institutions charge everyone the same tuition, but they often have privately-funded scholarships, so it’s worth applying even if the price tag seems too high.

A school’s tuition isn’t necessarily the exact amount you’ll pay, because it doesn’t reflect financial aid or extra expenses like housing and books. But it’s still wise to check out tuition figures when considering college information, as it may expand or diminish your options, depending on your financial situation.

Need help getting started on your college search? Search by location, major, admission difficulty, and more with Peterson’s College Search