How to Pick Your Dream College 101

The Sweet guide to collegiate bliss.

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Location, Location, Location

The ?: Where do I want to spend the next four years of my life?

What to Consider: Let's start with the most basic tool: a map. Pull one out and highlight the areas of the world you might want to call home for the next chapter of your life. Whether you decide to stay in your hometown or explore a new city halfway across the world, your school's locale is the easiest factor to focus on when you start paring down a seemingly endless list of options.

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Editor Hot Tip: "There's no shame in going to college down the street. But don't be afraid to move away for college if you think you want to, no matter how scary the thought is. You can do it, I promise." —Christian Storm, photo editor, @cstorm44

Choose Your Major

The ?: If I have even an inkling of interest in a potential area of study, can I pursue it here?

What to Consider: No, you most definitely do not need to know what you want to major in when applying to schools—but if you have a sense you might want to try fashion design or biomedical engineering, make sure the schools you're looking at offer the right tracks and classes at a level that will challenge you and take you in the direction you want to go.

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Editor Hot Tip: "If you think you know what you want to do going into college, that's awesome. If you don't, that's totally cool, also. You'll change a lot in your four years of school as you realize more about yourself. Don't feel stressed or stuck if you realize you want a change. If you want to start off pre-med as an aspiring neurosurgeon/plastic surgeon and switch to study magazine journalism like I did, go for it. It'll all work out in the end." —Yasmeen Gharnit, social media editor, @yazzysjazzy

Sizing It Up

The ?: Do I thrive in discussion-based classes or larger lectures?

What to Consider: Everyone learns differently, so it's important to distinguish if you need a collaborative classroom setting that gives you space to voice your thoughts, or if taking in the lesson plan through listening and note-taking is more your style.

Editor Hot Tip: "When there are only 1,800–2,000 students at your school, your professors have room to be incredibly invested in your work. Your small classes (I was rarely in a class with more than 20 people) provide some of the most challenging conversations of your academic career, and being a leader among your peers becomes especially important. For me, a small liberal arts school was the way to go." —Rebecca Bates, senior editor, @re.beccabates

General Campus Vibe

The ?: On my daily dash from the classroom to the library to the dining hall, what do I want to see?

What to Consider: Close your eyes and picture your dream campus. Do you see a traditional campus quad full of frisbee games and study groups, or bustling streets with access to all the opportunities a big city presents? A campus in the middle of the woods or university buildings spread across a lively metropolis? Each will give you a very different experience, so if you have the opportunity to tour the school IRL, take it.

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Editor Hot Tip: "I always thought college would be my chance to finally move to a big city, but the second I saw the sprawling quad of my traditional state-school campus, everything clicked. Even in the unflattering gray light of the Midwestern winter, I saw a clear picture of who I wanted to be, and at last I knew where I was going to become that person. A campus tour could change everything—it might convince you to open yourself up to life experiences you'd never considered." —Nicola Dall'Asen, editorial intern, @nikkidallasen

Future Friends and Classmates

The ?: Who do I want to spend the next four years with?

What to Consider: Undergrad is a great time to leave familiar people, places, and things behind and open yourself up to a whole new perspective. Surround yourself with a diverse community of peers who will challenge and inspire you for an education both inside the classroom and out.

Editor Hot Tip: "The second my campus tour group stepped into the buzzing student center, I knew I had found a school that attracted the kind of people I was looking for. Between tables of excited classmates meeting up over lunch, student groups championing various causes, and the contagious energy in the air, I was sold." —Chantal Strasburger, assistant editor, @chantagold

Dorm Life

The ?: Do I want the people I live with to be my go-to community or do I like a little more independence?

What to Consider: Finding your community is a crucial part of a smooth transition—but wanting to establish it within your living space or looking outside the dorms for "your people" is an important distinction. And while you're inspecting the living situation, check to see if you're more likely to score a spacious single or share a co-ed bathroom with your entire freshmen floor—that might be a deciding factor in itself.

Editor Hot Tip: "This is a somewhat extreme suggestion—and it requires going to school in a city with more than one university—but it worked for me. Live with people from another school! You're going to meet your classmates on campus, so if you live with people in a different orbit, you'll end up with twice as many friends." —Mallory Rice, deputy editor, @mallory-rice

Food, Glorious Food

The ?: I am going to be eating this food every day for the next four years—is it good?

What to Consider: If you can't get in on a taste test for yourself, look up reviews or contact current students to find out the dining situation. Where you get your daily grub may seem inconsequential—but there's a lot to be said for locally sourced, sustainable, and delicious dining options when study breaks require brain food.

Editor Hot Tip: "With access to four different dining halls, my campus offered plenty of dining options no matter what kind of food I wanted. But, because I went to school in New York, that also meant that I had endless delivery options and a five boroughs worth of potential restaurants to choose from. Brick oven pizza from the school café is good, but there's nothing like endless eating possibilities in a big city." —Rebecca Deczynski, editorial assistant, @rebeccadecz

Sports, Clubs, and Greek Life

The ?: What do I want to get involved with outside of academics?

What to Consider: Student groups can be a pivotal outlet for relieving stress, and the easiest way to meet new people with similar passions. If you're missing the team-bonding of high school sports, sign up for club soccer. If you want to flex your political muscles, join the school newspaper. Looking for more active social calendar? Try rushing.

Editor Hot Tip: "Clubs and sports were a big part of my life in high school, so it was important for me to find a campus with a ton of different activities and students who were really engaged. Before college, I didn't necessarily believe I was the type of person who would have joined a sorority or camped out for basketball tickets, but those wound up being two of my most prized college memories, because I was open to trying new things." —Catherine Fuentes, managing editor, @cat_fuentes

Scholarships and Financial Aid

The ?: Is tuition affordable? And if not, what does the school offer to help me cover the cost?

What to Consider: Student debt is no joke, so make sure to do as much research as you can on what various schools offer in relation to scholarships and financial aid, and then see what you qualify for and apply.

Editor Hot Tip: "Look into your school's work-study options (and fill out that FAFSA as early as you can! The best jobs go quick). Through my college, I got a job as a paid marketing assistant at an NPR station (which turned into a few bylines in the music section of a local magazine, which turned into an internship at Elle.) My paychecks covered a lot of the smaller expenses that my scholarship didn't (books, school supplies, the occasional jar of red Manic Panic)." — Caitlin Petreycik, senior fashion editor, @c_petreycik

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