So you want to start your college search. But here comes the scary part…

College is one of the biggest investments you will ever make in money and time. Half of all full-time undergrads at four-year universities pay $9,000 per year for their education, not to mention room and board, transportation, and other living expenses during that time. A lot is riding on your decision to go to college. You want to make this decision very carefully.

Here are 8 Steps to Make Your College Search Perfect your college education on the right foot. By following these directions you will find the best program for your needs at a price you can manage. So follow along and get ready to make one of the most important decisions of your life (no pressure):

1. Choose a major

choose a college majorDon’t be fooled by high job placement rates or a prestigious name. Often different colleges do very well in one subject but not so well in others. For this reason, you want to make your major one of your criteria for picking a school.
Ask yourself:

a. What do I like to do?
b. What do I tend to think about in my spare time?
c. What would I like to do for the rest of my life?

The answers to these questions will point you toward the best major for you. You might need to do your research to connect your interests with an existing major. Sites like Vault, Princeton Review, and Hoovers can be a wonderful research tool. Also, interviewing people you know in different fields can also help you in this process.

Ultimately, choosing a field that you are passionate about will bring for more success than choosing a major just because it can make a lot of money.

On that note, however, you may find that you don’t know what you want to do or that you want have many different interests. Regardless, make the effort to narrow down your goals. It will help you refine your college search and make the most of your educational investment.

2. Decide whether you will study full-time or part-time

Not everyone can afford to quit their job and jump into school full-time. Being completely honest with yourself, determine how much time you have for school. Here is a simple formula to determine how much time you will to spend each week:

College credit to weekly hours conversion


These students must carry a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester. That means you will need the following hours to do well:

Credit hours to weekly hours conversion for full-time students



These students carry fewer than 12 credits per semester. Assuming a student takes 6 credit hours, their total school hours would be as follows:
credit hour to weekly hours conversion for part-time students

Depending on your income needs and your goals, determine how many hours you will be able to give to your college education. It is not recommended that you take on both a full-time job and a full-time semester at the same time, although some gifted individuals do it successfully.
To avoid stretching yourself too thin, decide ahead of time what kind of schedule you can handle before you start talking to schools.

3. Choose two-year or four-year

After choosing which major you will pursue and how much time you will dedicate to college, you are in a good position to decide whether you want to pursue a two- or four-year degree program. Two-year programs are mostly Associate’s degree programs; four-year programs will typically earn you a bachelor’s degree.

Over time, a bachelor’s degree will more than pay you back for the extra two years. If your field does require a four-year degree, don’t be intimidated by the length of time. Often, you can find accelerated degree programs, especially online, that allow students to finish a bachelor’s degree in three years or less. To find out more about these programs, talk to multiple schools here.

However, not all careers require a four-year degree. Your best bet is to ask people in that field which degrees or certificates are needed for your chosen major. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you only need to go to school for two years to enter your career.

4. Choose public, private non-profit, or private for-profit

You have more options than ever. You have public schools, which funded primarily by state or national government. Then there are  private which may or may not make a profit off of their operations. You’ve probably heard of some for-profits like University of Phoenix or Capella University. Public and private colleges have their pros and cons. These typically revolve around cost and perks:

average tuition and fees per year for public and private college

benefits of private and public colleges

Basically, this choice depends on your tastes and your budget. If you are looking for a more cosmopolitan experience, a public college would be best for you. If you thrive better in smaller, more intimate groups, private is for you. Private for-profit schools, like University of Phoenix or Cappella University, cost less than private non-profits on average.

5. Contact schools

Based on the criteria you selected above, start seeking out schools. This may seem obvious, but only look at schools that fit your criteria. At this point, it might be tempting to go after the most prestigious, even if just for curiosity sake. Resist the urge and only look at schools that fit your criteria.

Contact schools before you enrollVisit your prospective colleges when possible. You want to see firsthand where you would be spending those countless, grueling hours of study. Often, a visit to a campus can give you insight into a school that a website just can’t. To set up an appointment at non-profit schools, your first step is typically to call or email their admissions office, which can usually be found on a website. This will allow you to talk to a live admissions counselor and get answers to any remaining questions. As you talk to counselors, remember that you are the customer. You have the right to make sure that they meet the criteria you set.

Private for-profits are easier to meet with. You can submit your information to multiple schools through our Degree Finder Tool. If you want to inquire at multiple schools, go to our online form.

IMPORTANT: DO NOT JUST ENROLL AT THE FIRST SCHOOL YOU COME ACROSS! Shop around. Talk to multiple schools even if it takes a little more time and even if the admissions counselors are very persuasive. Talk to students and other outsiders to get their opinions. This will give you more options.

6. Weigh your options

Before you say ‘yes’ to any admissions counselor, take a timeout to weigh your options. After all, this choice will consume your life for the next two to four years. Hold up your choices objectively and compare them to your criteria. Try to predict how your options will play out five, ten, or twenty years down the road. Will you be glad you did it thirty years from now? The main idea is, don’t let this become an impulse decision. Take your time to make a decision you can live with.

7. Decide how you will pay for your education

paying for collegeOnce you have chosen your college, review your financial situation. Although Pell grants and Stafford loans can pay for much of your schools expenses, you will need to review how much of your own funds you will be able to use to pay for college. You will want to use as much free money and as little debt as possible to finance your education.

In most cases, you can prioritize your financing in the following way to keep your school debt low or eliminate it altogether:

  1. Pell grants and scholarships – These are free of any future obligation or interest, which means you never have to pay them back. Use as much of these as you can to finance your college degree.
  2. Cash – This means money from your own pocket. The upside: you never have to pay it back and there’s no interest. The downside: it is your own money.
  3. Family loans – The next best thing to using your own cash is borrowing that money from a trusted family member or friend who is willing to give you a loan for little or no interest. The upside: it won’t reflect on your credit score in the future and they will usually be reasonable about repayment terms. The downside: you have to pay it back and you will likely see your creditor at holiday parties (awkward).
  4. Student loans – Although these loans typically have lower interest rates, they are loans nonetheless that do accrue interest. Use these loans sparingly to avoid paying excessive interest later.
  5. Credit cards – Whether it is an American Express card or a line of credit that is pretending to be a student loan, financing your education through consumer credit cards is dangerous. The thing that makes them especially dangerous is their high interest rates, which can range from 12% to 30% or more. Exhaust all of the above options before using consumer credit.

Granted, you may not know exactly how much you can qualify for in Pell grants or Stafford loans until you enroll in schools. After all, you can’t even apply for financial aid unless you’re registered for classes. Nevertheless, it is smart to figure out everything you can do before making the big decision to enroll.

8. Enroll in the college of your choice

After going through this process, you are ready to enroll in the school of your choice with confidence, knowing you’ve done your homework. This will be as easy as phoning the admissions counselor you spoke to previously. They will be able to get you started on your application and any other paperwork.

Congratulations! If you followed the eight steps, you have gotten off on the best foot possible. Chances are, you will have fewer second thoughts, regrets, or unnecessary expenses down the road because you took the time to do it right. If you are ready to talk to an admissions counselor today, go to an online form now.