Discover Four-Year Colleges
Discover Four-Year Colleges
Joy Brown /

With hundreds of college options, knowing where to apply, or even where to start looking, can be overwhelming. Attending a local college fair is a great first step, but you also need to pick colleges that are likely to accept you and ones that you can afford to attend. Once you have a list, taking campus tours and scheduling overnight visits to colleges can help you narrow down your options.

The perfect school is a combination of a number of things: academic programs, location, size, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), and student body diversity. These all contribute to the overall environment of a college, and knowing what attracts you will help you narrow down your choices. If you want to play basketball, make sure there's a team; if you want to join a sorority, there needs to be Greek life on campus. Know what you want before you start looking.

Once you have a list of colleges that interest you, narrow it down to the ones that you can afford to attend. This doesn't mean that you have to be able to pay for everything out-of-pocket; most schools offer financial aid to eligible students. Estimate what type of aid you're likely to receive from the government, your school, and outside sources and factor in what costs you're likely to incur. Your list will automatically narrow itself down.

There are three types of schools to which you can apply: safety, reach, and match schools. Safety schools are ones where your academic strengths almost guarantee acceptance, while reach schools are ones where you have a chance of admittance, but it's not assured. Match schools are the schools where your academic strengths and weaknesses and the school's admissions statistics match.

College fairs are full of booths showcasing colleges from around the nation and offer you a great opportunity to get the inside scoop about certain schools directly from admissions representatives, but they shouldn’t be used for socializing with your friends. Do your research on what schools will be attending ahead of time and break away from the group to visit booths that interest you. Talk to admissions representatives and alumni to get a feel for each institution, and be respectful and attentive during your conversations. Bring a notebook to take notes or a folder to collect flyers and pamphlets from the booths that you visit so you can make informed decisions later on.

The best way to learn about your potential institution is to call up the admissions office and ask for a spot on a campus tour or a place to sleep if you want to stay overnight. Admissions representatives can also help you arrange meetings with professors, coaches, and students, and they can help you find classes to sit in on. Make sure your visit is worth the trip by getting there on time and planning out the questions you want to ask and things on campus you want to see in advance. Then, try to picture yourself on campus. Would it feel like home to you?

Though it is the "traditional" path, you're not obligated to attend a four-year college. In fact, you're not obligated to attend college at all. If you want to go back to school eventually, but don't feel ready yet, you could consider taking a gap year or enlisting in the military. If a four-year program isn't for you, you could try community college, online classes, or vocational school. You have numerous options.