Not Sure Where to Go to College? This Tool Can Help You Decide

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When it comes to major life decisions, choosing which college to attend ranks high on the scale of sheer nerve-wrackingness.

You want to go somewhere affordable, but also somewhere that will lay the best foundation for a successful future.

You want a school with top-notch academics, but also a place you’ll truly be able to call “home” for the next four years.

You likely have other “dream college” must-haves, whether that’s a bustling urban location, great financial aid options or a certain male-to-female ratio. (Hey, we won’t judge.)

That’s a lot of information to weigh. And while you can find college rankings aplenty online, assimilating all of that data to determine which schools have just the right mix of features for you can be overwhelming.

Until now.

How to Make Your Own Custom College Rankings

Meet Money magazine’s cool new college search tool.

It incorporates some of the best parts of typical college rankings while adding an extra level of personalization to help you better determine which of its more than 700 four-year schools are the best value for your specific needs and wants.

Here’s how it works:

First, you create your list of top colleges by using up to 10 different filters:

  • Location (state or region)
  • Majors/study areas
  • School size
  • Type of campus (urban or not)
  • Type of school (public or private)
  • Selectivity (acceptance rate)
  • Typical student test scores (ACT/SAT)
  • Test requirements
  • Varsity sports teams
  • Male/female ratio

Then, you can sort your schools based on four additional factors:

  • Likelihood of need-based financial aid
  • Likelihood of merit-based financial aid (like scholarships)
  • Typical student loan debt incurred
  • Expected graduate earnings

Once you’ve generated and ranked your list, you can then click to learn more about each school on detailed profile pages.

Best of all? The tool is totally free to use.

But Does It Work?

I was curious see how my own life may have differed if this tool existed when I was a college hopeful, so I tried plugging in the factors I (or, rather, 18-year-old me) would have been seeking.

For location, I chose the Northeast (high-school-me was obsessed with Hollywood images of autumn campuses and vaguely New England-y settings).

I entered my preferred major, English, and was given a list of potential study areas, from boldfaced general categories to more specific concentrations. I selected “English Language and Literature” and added “Creative Writing” as a concentration.

I do better in a setting where I can get to know my fellow students and professors, so I limited my school size to small and medium. I left type of school, varsity sports teams and male/female ratio blank as those factors didn’t matter to me, but I did select “not urban” for type of campus to get me one of those big, leaf-strewn quads I always dreamed of.

I also chose “Highly” and “Somewhat” selective so I’d have a better chance of being among the best and the brightest (and of getting in if they wound up being better and brighter than I anticipated). Finally, I entered my SAT score.

With every filter I chose, a list of my top college options appeared and refreshed itself on the right side of the screen, with each school’s overall rank displayed in a circle next to its name.

I then sorted my list based on my financial preferences. Need- and merit-based financial aid: “very important.” Zero debt upon graduation: “very important.”

Likelihood of a high-paying job: “moderately important,” as I’ve always been more interested in quality of life than making a ton of cash.

My results?

Sarah Lawrence, one of my top picks back in the day, came out no. 2 on my list, even though its overall rank on traditional lists is 585. I saw a few other vaguely familiar names on my 21-school list, but none I’d considered seriously based on the pretty brochures and catalogues I was largely working from in the ‘‘90s.

My top recommendation, The College of New Jersey, was one I’d never even heard of, but after browsing its stats and student reviews, I could see why it might have been worth considering.

My custom rankings list certainly opened up my mind to new options, and I’d be interested to see how my list would change if I played around with adjusting some of my filters. (Maybe I could look at pricier schools if I was also hoping for one of these weird scholarships?)

One thing is for certain: I would have loved to have this tool available to me when I was on the college hunt.

Your Turn: Students, what do you think of MONEY’s new college search tool?

Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor who runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.

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