September 8, 2012 | | Leave a comment Most people like the idea of going to college, but are often at a loss when it comes to choosing a college that fits their needs. Really, choosing the right college is not about the glamour that we usually associate with college. It is not about finding a school that will give you a free iPad. It’s about your own goals and doing your research. So where does your college search start? It starts with you and what you want for your future and ends with you making the best choice for your goals. To find the college that best fits your needs, follow these seven steps: 1. Define your goals in seeking a college. People pursue college for many different reasons. It sounds exciting or prestigious. It offers them a way out of a dead-end career. Their family would just be so proud. But, before you embark on the tiring, expensive, time-intensive journey of college, you need to ask yourself, “Why do I want to go college?” Or put more correctly: “What do I hope to achieve by going to college?” If you don’t have a goal, any college will do. But if you know what you’re trying to accomplish, it will help you narrow down your search to the schools that will best meet your goals. So, before you start googling, before you start visiting campuses, sit down and write out your goals in seeking a college education. Are you trying to land a career in a specific industry? Are you trying to raise your salary at your current job? Are you trying to blaze a trail for your children? Whatever your goals, record them and keep them in front of you as you proceed to step two. 2. Spell out your criteria. With your goals in mind, decide what your college will need to have to help you accomplish your goals. For example, if your goal is to become a registered nurse, one of your criteria will be that your college has to have a nursing program–and preferably one that does a good job of placing its students in nursing jobs after graduation. Criteria you will want to decide on include: online or on-campus; degree programs; campus location; financial assistance; job placement rates after graduation; graduation rates; length of degree programs. Of course, be realistic with your criteria: they should be needs, not wants. As with your goals, write these criteria down and keep them handy. They will help to keep you focused as you start looking at colleges. 3. Build a list of colleges based on your criteria. This is where your goals and criteria become very useful. With their slick websites and marketing campaigns, most colleges will look pretty attractive. But in this case, it’s not what’s on the outside that counts, but what is inside. Cut through colleges’ marketing to get a more accurate picture of their strengths and weaknesses. Use search engines to find school stats. Go to forums for students and pay attention to what they say about different schools. Check with third-party college rating sites like princetonreview.com to see which colleges fare best according to your criteria. As you do this, you’ll notice certain schools keep coming up again and again. As you start researching, be very careful not to compromise on your criteria. There are plenty of colleges out there for you, and you don’t need to settle on one that only partway meets your needs. Throw out any colleges that don’t meet all of your criteria. 4. Do your homework on each college. After narrowing down your search to a few finalists, dig even deeper to find out all you can about these colleges. At this point, it’s a good idea to seek out alumni from these colleges and ask them frank questions about their student experience. Read every article and review you can find about them. Yes, you need to get a little obsessive about this. After all, you will be spending thousands of dollars to attend their college. 5. Visit the college in person. You don’t really know a college unless you’ve actually visited it. Schools can put up squeaky clean images on their website, but it’s not until you actually walk through the buildings, see their classrooms, and observe the students enrolled at each one that you really understand what going there would be like. If the campus is close enough, take the time to make a visit and get an official tour. Then, after the tour is over, linger on campus by yourself and play spy so you can see the uncensored version. You’ll be amazed how much you learn from doing this. 6. Ask the hard questions. Eventually, once you’ve done all the detective work you can on your own and you’re down to the few colleges that have made the cut, you’ll want to talk to an admissions specialist. Word to the wise: don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. Go into cutthroat journalist mode. This isn’t to be unpleasant or to ruin their day. It is simply because of one simple fact: they are paid to get you into their college. Make sure you get the answers you need to every nagging question you have. Especially at for-profit schools, enrollment specialists will want to hurry you into the application. But don’t let them. Ask every question you have and hound them until you get a satisfactory answer. And then tell them you’ll think about it and end the conversation. 7. Weigh your options. Why should you end the call when it’s so much easier to get signed up right there? Because you need time to clear your head and consider all your research. Place all your choices side by side, consider the pros and cons of each, and then sleep on it. Never let a school representative push you into a choice that you will have to live with for the rest of your life. You will be paying for each credit hour and you deserve to take as much time as you need to make your decision. Are you in the middle of choosing a college? What are your biggest questions? Share in the comments below!