Academic Factors to Consider When Choosing a College

Sometimes having too many choices is a problem, especially when there are thousands of reputable colleges and universities to choose from. Students who know what they want to study have an advantage, since they can focus on schools with good departments in their chosen field.

Don Johnson is a high school student athlete in Brookfield, Illinois. When he was injured and sent to physical therapy, he realized he wanted to become a physical therapist. He visited about five campuses, and seriously considered three or four schools with physical therapy courses. University of Hawaii and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut are presently his top two choices.

It was also important for him to have a chance to play college football, so all the schools on his list were ones where he could do both. He will base his final decision on academics, though.

"Sports help students grow, but it's not more important than academics to me," says Johnson.

Johnson says that he's leaning towards Sacred Heart because he could complete his undergraduate work and earn a clinical doctorate in physical therapy in six years without transferring schools.

Scott Shillings says that his son Clayton, a high school senior and class valedictorian in Houston, Texas, knew he wanted to study aeronautical engineering. The family toured several campuses, including Georgia Tech and the University of Virginia.

Besides the engineering program that interested him, Clayton was looking for a big college with lots of green space. He considered both Shillings' alma mater, Texas A&M University, and his wife's alma mater, the University of Texas (UT).

"It's sort of a state rivalry, but both of them have excellent engineering programs," says Shillings.

Shillings arranged for Clayton to spend a day at A&M with a friend who attends the university. "He got to tour the campus, go to class, go to lunch, visit the dorms, and take in a game. That personal tour had a big impact," says Shillings. But the deciding factor came when the family attended a soccer event at UT the same weekend of a big football game. It gave Clayton a sense that the campus atmosphere might be too hectic for him.

Both Don Johnson and Clayton Shillings established a list of possible colleges based on the subject they wanted to study. They then narrowed their list of options based on other factors that were important to them.

"There's a belief that you should look for colleges that have particularly strong departments in X-and-such," says Carol Cohen, Brown University's assistant dean of the college. "If you're looking at certain levels of schools -- certainly the top several tiers of colleges in this country -- you're going to get good departments in X-and-such." Cohen says that only when students have a very particular field of study in mind should they base their choices primarily on specific programs. There are other academic factors to consider even if you don't know what field you will be studying.

For instance, larger universities often offer more options -- they may have courses or entire departments that aren't available at smaller colleges. This might give students the option to change majors without changing schools. But smaller colleges can offer a more personal learning experience -- notably, fewer students per teacher, which means more interaction with professors.

"I find I learn better in smaller groups because communicating and discussions are key," says Danielle Hendrickson, a senior at Carroll College in Wisconsin. "Everyone learns differently, and while a smaller university suits me, it may not work for someone else. So when comparing colleges, I focused a lot on the class size as well as the student-to-teacher ratio."

Deciding on her top choices was a simple process. "First, you look at what programs they offer. If they don't offer a program you're interested in, there's no reason to consider that school." After weighing course options and the student-teacher ratio, she also factored in school location.

"You must find a school that meets your needs academically and personally," Hendrickson says. "My family gave me their input, but they didn't persuade me one way or the other. Deciding where to attend college was solely my decision."

Cohen says that listing pros and cons helps many students in their decision-making. Campus visits and personal impressions of each school also play a big part.

"I think it's important to cover both [concrete research and overall feeling], because no two schools are identical," she says. "Do your homework, know what each school offers that's different. But also give some credence to that gut feeling, because you can pick things up on a deeper level than a shallow impression of a school might lead you to believe."


  • Make sure the school's course offerings appeal to you.
  • Ask what the student-teacher ratio is at each school.
  • If you learn better in smaller classes, consider smaller or private schools.
  • If you work best independently, or want more course options, consider a larger university.
  • When two schools are evenly matched academically, visit the campuses to see which one has an atmosphere that suits you.
  • If you know what you want to study, research the top schools in that field and compare their requirements and special programs.
  • Make a list of pros and cons for each school for easy reference.
  • Trust your gut instinct.