As a high schooler looking at colleges I remember one thing clearly: being overwhelmed by the number of choices. It seemed as if there were hundreds of colleges with good programs to pick from. Where do I go? What do I do? Which school is the best for me?

As I began the process of sifting through all of these schools, I quickly realized that I needed to find a criteria list. What was I looking for to create my ideal college experience? Did I have "do’s" and "dont’s?" Were there things that would make or break a school for me? So as a junior in high school, I sat down to make a list. At first, it was comprised mostly of questions, but it soon was shaped into categories that helped guide my college decision-making process.

I found that a lot of these questions were answered when I visited college campuses. There were a number of people — parents, guidance counselors, admission counselors — that advised me to visit campuses to get a true feel for what a particular college offers. I was able to visit several different schools prior to starting college, and the experiences were invaluable. I was able to make a number of observations just by walking around campuses. Soon, many of my questions were being answered on tours and interacting with the college in a more physical way rather than just informational on the website.

First on my criteria list was financial aid, as I knew my family contribution was only going to be so much. I needed to find a school that would help me financially, either through accepted state aid or other scholarships or work study money. I didn’t want money to stand in the way of my going to college, so I went through all the right steps. I filed the FAFSA, I applied for scholarships at different schools, I got online and found a huge number of essays I could write to earn scholarships. When I had the opportunity to be on campus, I was purposeful about asking questions. I was often able to meet with someone from the financial aid office; having the opportunity to sit and talk with someone who has literally all the answers is a tremendous assistance. A face to face conversation is extremely more helpful than waiting several days for an email reply.

Academics was also majorly important to me. I wanted an excellent program that would provide the highest caliber of education. I was looking to major in history, and the type of classes and concentrations offered within the department was very important. I wanted to be able to tailor my learning experience to my personal preferences and needs. At one college I visited, I sat down with the head of the department of history; hearing directly from a professor whose classes I would be taking was amazing. He was able to tell me exactly what I could expect classes at this college to look like. It gave me a much more real sense of what the academic experience looked like that I couldn’t get from just reading a course catalog online.

It was also important to me to know more about dorm life and the general campus atmosphere of the schools I was considering. How many roommates would I have? Would I have to suffer through the dreaded community bathroom experience? As a freshman, could I have my car on campus? Of what caliber was the dining hall? Was there work available on campus? What was the surrounding area like? Were there things to do on and off campus? Almost 100 percent of these questions were answered by college visits. I was able to see what dorm room accommodations were specifically. I ate in dining halls. I talked to possible employers on campus. I drove around the surrounding community.

The process of choosing a college can be overwhelming for many students. It takes time, and thoughtful consideration has to be put into every step. However, posing all of these questions to myself was helpful in narrowing down my list of schools from a dozen or so to just a few. And, fortunately, there were a great number of schools that had what I was looking for, both private and public. Having a goal in mind allowed me to fully explore exactly what my options were, and helped me realize the full range of choices out there. I ended up attending a private college that gave me all of what I was looking for and more.

Chloe Alexander is a strategic communications intern at Independent Colleges of Indiana.

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