Deciding Which Colleges to Apply To: Student Guide

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With a few thousand colleges across the United States (and many more abroad), choosing which universities to apply to can seem overwhelming. Even if you already have a clear-cut idea of which universities you would like to attend, researching all your options is crucial. You may discover colleges that offer more scholarships or are better suited to your major that would be worth applying to. 



In-State VS Out-Of-State 

Applying to (and attending) in-state and out-of-state colleges can be very different! Below are differences to consider: 

  • Many universities have different application systems based on location 
    • In-state colleges sometimes have their own system for their state’s public universities, like Texas’s ApplyTexas system, whereas top private universities may use Common Application or other systems
  • Overall cost  
    • In-state colleges have a much lower tuition rate for their residents, whereas out-of-state tuition costs an average of $10,000 more
  • Distance from home and convenience 
    • It’s easier to travel home and transport things if your home and university are in the same state 
    • It’s usually more expensive to live and travel between states
  • Experiences 
    • Out-of-state colleges offer a diverse range of new experiences since you’ll be away from home and meeting more people

Distance From Home 

  • Out-of-state colleges are optimal if you are wanting to live far away from home and experience greater independence 
  • If you have special circumstances or simply like living close to home, you would want to consider local and in-state colleges 
  • If your university is close to your home, you can save money by commuting instead of paying for residence 


Your financial position is arguably one of the most important factors to consider when choosing which colleges to apply to.  

  • Discuss with your parents if and how much they are willing to support you during college – this affects how much money you need to take out in loans, work for, or procure some way
  • Estimate the average cost of attendance for the different types of universities you’re considering, and think about how you would have to adjust your finances to apply to and attend each of those colleges  
    • For example, you may find that paying out-of-state tuition isn’t feasible unless you receive a scholarship or financial aid, which may deter you from applying to a college in the first place
  • Research how much grants or aid you may be able to receive through FAFSA, other scholarships, or reduced cost tuition, and filter your application list based on these criteria as well 
  • For instance, the University of Texas at Austin is planning to waive tuition for students with a family income under $65,000 – this is good news for students who fall into this category, and allows them to keep UT-Austin as a more viable option
  • For other universities, you may qualify for special merit-based or departmental scholarships either as an incoming freshman, or later on in the course of the undergrad program 
  • Merit based scholarships include scholarships based on test scores, GPA, National Merit qualifications, among other criteria 

Acceptance Likelihood

Likelihood of Acceptance (Reaches, Matches, Backups)


  •  You should make sure to apply to a variety of colleges – it’s important to have one or two safety schools that you would still be happy to attend  
    • The other universities in your application can be matches, with a few reaches 
    • Avoid applying to a lot of reach universities unless you don’t mind the extra work and application fees
  • You can use college acceptance calculator tools like Niche, CollegeVine, PrepScholar, and Naviance among others to see beforehand your chances of acceptance 
    • Remember that these tools are not foolproof methods – they only estimate your chances based on test scores and GPA, but don’t consider essays and other special situations  

Academic Programs

Programs of Study / Honors programs  


  • Consider universities that offer the best programs for your desired major – for example, if you’re interested in computer science, you would want to apply to more STEM based schools, particularly those known for their strong computer science programs
  • For some universities, being a part of their university or department wide Honors programs can be very beneficial, and give you a strong reason to apply to that university  

Accelerated programs 


  • Another reason to apply to a particular university might be the special programs it may offer undergraduate students  
    • Many colleges offer accelerated Master’s programs, shortened pre-medical or pre-dental programs, automatic acceptance into research labs, and more 


Campus Environment 


  • Sometimes, the fit of a university campus is a great way to filter out which are worth applying to  
    • Examples of environmental factors to consider: party culture, campus resources, weather, proximity to large cities or downtown areas 

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