7 Smart Questions to Help You Discover Your Dream College

Sunday, December 17, 2023
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It’s fair to say that for years you’ve been working towards this moment: applying to a college, getting accepted, and starting the next step of your education. Now you just need to find a college that matches your ambitions and passions and allows you to set the stage for a successful future career. No tall order, right?

Some students are “lucky”: they know exactly which one of the nearly 4,000 higher education institutions in the United States that they plan to attend. But considering the many factors that go into where you’re going to spend your college years (and let’s face it, your tuition dollars), it’s not unusual to be overwhelmed by options. 

So where to begin? Here are 7 questions to help guide your decision.


1. Where will you study?

One of the biggest things you will want to decide is what location you want the college to be in. Maybe you want a change of scenery, swapping the suburbs for the big city or vice versa. Maybe you are looking for a “college town” and are looking to be surrounded by people of the same age and the same forward-thinking, inquisitive mindset. And how far do you want to be from your parents?

Whatever you are after, plan a visit to tour campus to see if the setting matches your expectations. An admissions representative or student will likely show you around, and you can get individualized information to help you in your search. (With that in mind, here are 5 questions to ask your admissions rep.)

If you can’t make it to campus, find out if the school you’re interested in offers virtual tours. You can also do some online digging to understand what the local scene is like, look at weather patterns, and price out travel if you're far from home. 

2. What’s the student body like?

College is a time for meeting new people and trying new things, so it’s natural to wonder who you’ll be learning with on-campus and what opportunities are available. You may want to find out things like:

  • Where are the students from? State schools are likely to draw students from nearby, while private institutions might attract students from across the country or across the globe. You might also be curious about diversity and campus culture — does your top school seem to have a welcoming environment for all? Find out.
  • How many clubs and student organizations are on campus? If you were active in a particular club in high school and want to continue at the college level, this will be a top question for you. Or maybe you want to try something totally new!
  • Are there athletic teams? If sports are your thing, this will be an important question for you to ask. You might be looking to attend a school that packs stadiums with cheering fans, or you might desire a smaller school that would allow you to join a team and get in on the action.

3. Do I have to live on campus?

Many institutions require that first-year students live on campus, while some have more flexible policies. Dorm life has tons of benefits (close proximity to your early morning classes, for one!) but also comes with added expense. Knowing whether or not you can commute could be a crucial question in discovering your total college costs. 

Even if you plan to live in the dorms, take some time to look at the facilities and see if they're what you expect. You may even want to find out what the process for roommate selection is in advance.

4. How big are the classes?

Maybe larger lecture hall-type settings don’t bother you. But if you’re the type of student who craves more individual attention and wants your professor to know your name, you’re going to want to find out the student-to-faculty ratio, especially in your major courses.

5. Do they have my major? (And what if I’m undecided?)

Speaking of majors, what you pick will help you focus your studies and develop the skills employers in your field are hiring for. Prior to college, you may have participated in clubs or even taken college-level courses, but now you get a chance to dive into your area of interest. If there is a specific major you're interested in, or even specific classes you want to take, be sure the school you're exploring offers it.

But what if you don’t know quite yet what you’d like to study? Or what if your interests are varied and you’d like to explore them all? Be sure to find out how different colleges on your list support students who enter college as “undecided”—you may be pleasantly surprised that you can customize a degree that’s personalized to your goals, or at least that you don't have to decide for a few semesters.

6. Will I get a job when I graduate?

The data around the payoff of a college degree are clear: The higher the degree you earn, the higher your earnings and the lower your risk of unemployment. But how does each institution stack up with placing its graduates into jobs? Ask about the Career Outcomes Rate, which indicates employment, additional education, fellowship/internship, or military service six months after graduation. 

This is also a good time to explore what career services the school offers, as well as connections they have in the community. 

7. Can I afford it?

According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of college - including tuition, living expenses, books, and supplies - is $36,436 per year. This will vary greatly based on things like if the school is public or private, the location, and if you will pay in-state or out-of-state tuition. 

It’s inevitable that tuition costs will be a big part of your conversation around choosing a college, but be sure to explore all financial aid opportunities, scholarships, and grants before making your final decision. Don't forget to look at the NSHSS guidance around scholarships for tips and advice on this topic. College is an investment, but it can be one that pays off for the rest of your life!

Making your decision

Once you have an idea of the schools you like, you can start to explore things like acceptance rates and where you may get in. It's common to have a "safety school" on your list, where you know you will be accepted, as well as a "stretch school" that is a bigger challenge. Always apply to multiple schools so that you keep your options open.

Now that you know what to ask, how do you keep track of what you discover? A College Decision Worksheet like this one from Johnson & Wales University allows you to rank your choices and what’s important to you. 

Above all, enjoy this exciting time in your life and know that whatever you choose will be a great school for you.


Since 2002, NSHSS has supported young academics on their journey to college and beyond as they prepare to become the leaders of tomorrow. The mission behind NSHSS is to recognize academic excellence and honor high-achieving students, providing them with the resources and network to excel in college, career, and community. In doing so, NSHSS connects members with global events, scholarships, college fairs, internships, career and leadership programs, partner discounts, and more. Discover what makes NSHSS worth it to student members and how you can get involved.