How to Choose the Right College

Parent Q&A

UCSD (Roosevelt College) or Wash Univ. at St. Louis for pre-med Apr 22, 2020 (18 responses below)
College choice: UC vs. CSU Jul 7, 2018 (12 responses below)
  • Hi Parents,

    My daughter needs to decide between attending UCSD or Washington University at St. Louis in the fall.  She is currently planning on majoring in Molecular Biology and following a pre-med track (meaning meeting the various requirements to apply to med school).  As you might have guessed, WashU is a lot  more expensive than UCSD and it would be hard for us to afford it (but not 100% impossible). My question is whether it is worth it for us to stretch our finances and send her to WashU?  WashU has some impressive statistics as far as admission to med school, so that is a plus. However, our daughter is 18 y/o and I have told her to give herself permission to change her mind and pursue something else if she so chooses.  It seems to me that she would be able to pursue more options at UCSD.

    I would love to hear from other parents on their opinions about which university is a better choice or what factors to consider.

    Hi Parents,

    I posted the question above regarding UCSD vs. WashU for a pre-med student.  I haven't had any responses so I'm thinking the question was too general.  Any thoughts o a UC vs. a private college for a pre-med student?



    If both schools are feasible from a cost perspective then I think the main factor is how set your daughter is on going pre-med. If your daughter is (for now) determined to go biology/pre-med than going to WashU might help her immensely. WashU has a well known pre-med program as well as a lot of connections in the medical field. Also, WashU is a large university so even if she does change her mind then there are plenty of options for her over there. But if she thinks she will likely change her mind in the future then a UC school might be better.

    Another option that might work is your daughter spending 2 years at a UC and then transferring to WashU if she does decide to stay pre-med. I did something similar but for engineering (went from St. Mary's in Moraga to WashU).

    I would recommend asking this question (and researching prior responses) on College Confidential. There are a lot of knowledgeable people willing to share information on there. Good luck!

  • College choice: UC vs. CSU

    (12 replies)

    Did you go to college far away or closer to home? Are your teenagers already in college or will be going to college in the next few years? Please share what would you choose in this situation. 

    My daughter is 15. She is the only child and we are very close. Her grades are good  but not stellar (GPA 3.6). She will be 17 when she graduates high school. She has a few health issues plus ADD, anxiety and depression that made last year in school very difficult which affected her grades. Had higher grades before. 

    There is a midrange state University 25 minutes from home. It has a major of her choice. She can live at home and drive to the campus or live freshman year in the dorms to get college experience and the rest of years at home. It still will be less expensive then any other school.  

    Common sense says to me that it is the way to go and there are benefits of going there including:

    1)living nearby so I can help easier if she needs help (given her health and emotional issues it is my main concern now), 

    2)saving a lot of money and graduating without loans. Her future job of choice is not one of the high paying jobs but she really wants to do it. We do not qualify for financial aid. 

    4)at that local school it is easier to get classes needed (less impacted), easy to change majors if she decides to and it is less competitive and less stressful environment

    4)she can visit often her dog and me which will make us much happier :)

    However downsides are:

    1)since the school is smaller and less well known there will be less opportunities for internships and the name of the school is important for getting a good job after. She wants to get to the best school possible to have a better chance for future job prospects. Her grades would allow her to get into a better schools but they all are farther away.

    2)kids become more mature and learn more lifeskills if they are away from home and this is what most of her classmates going to do-go away for college. Would she be in a huge disadvantage if she stays locally for undergrad and may be go away to a bigger school for Grad school? She told me yesterday that wants to experience other places. How important is to get this experience at 17 vs 23 to be successful as a young adult in the US?

    Plus, I am a single mom, so my own desire to be close to her, and my mentality of being raised in the country where children stay at hometown if they can, also contributes but I do not want to be selfish and want to choose what would truly be the best for her. 

    Would you encourage your child to go to a good local less expensive school that we have enough savings to pay for fully or to take loans and go away to a better known bigger much more expensive school? 

    We are deciding between California State University vs UC (except UC Berkeley, UCLA or UCSD- scores are unfortunately not at the range for those). What would you do?

    Moderator Note: See also past advice "Which college?"

    RE: College choice: UC vs. CSU ()

    Tough choices. You know your daughter best. Make your decision from love, not fear. Yes, going away to college is an experience, but not every 18-year-old are mature enough to manage the roadblocks of being away from home i.e. parties.  

    Here are my personal thoughts: debt-free college, or at least minimum debt (less than $30k). Community college is also an option, keeping her close to home, giving her time to acclimate to college life. Berkeley Community College is a solid choice, as it's a feeder into the UC system. As far as CSU vs. UC, it depends on your daughter's interest/major. If it's not engineering, medicine, law, or business, CSU is adequate. I'm a former high school life skills teacher, and it's unfortunate that grades have become like an Olympic competition. But grades are not a predictor of a student's success. Life skills are. good luck.

    RE: College choice: UC vs. CSU ()

    Our daughter had some of the same challenges as yours, except that her grades in high school were MUCH worse; she nearly didn’t graduate. She went away to a junior college, and while the first year was almost a repeat of her HS years, somehow starting in her 2nd year she completely turned herself around. She finished her lower division transfer courses at the JC, getting help with her ADHD as well as guidance to ensure she completed the transfer requirements. She got into all of the schools you mention: UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego. She is now very happy at UC Berkeley. (She applied as a regular junior admission, not using the guaranteed admission program that community colleges offer).

    Two things: I think the experience of “going away” to college is extremely important (she was in another city for JC).  I wouldn’t envision your daughter getting as much out of her experience if she lives with you, particularly during her upper division years. 

    And I believe the college she attends absolutely does matter. Kids at UCB, UCLA, etc., are going to have opportunities that a child at CSU East Bay (or other) simply won’t have. 

    I’d consider the community college route. The guaranteed admission to a UC campus (does not include Berkeley or UCLA) holds if she maintains a 3.0 there. Both the community colleges and UC campuses will have programs that provide accommodation for her ADHD, should she desire that.  

    Best of luck. 

    RE: College choice: UC vs. CSU ()

    Have you considered the community college transfer route? Your daughter could stay at home an additional two years, save a ton of money, then transfer to her pick of UCs (or CSU or private college) for the remaining two years. It is MUCH easier to get in to the highly selective UCs as a community college transfer than from high school. HS grades and test scores will not be considered, only her community college grades. OTOH CSU is a great option. Keep in mind your daughter is going to mature quite a bit from age 15 to 17 and have her own opinion. I have one CC kid and one CSU kid.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


How much influence should parents have over decision?

March 2012

I'm wondering what role other parents have played in assisting your college-bound student in his/her final selection of colleges. We are awaiting word from the top two choices. Our daughter has applied to eleven schools and gotten in to six to date, one wait-list and three no's. She isn't in love with any of the six, although of the six, I think some are better than others for her. There is no real stand-out, and everything feels like a bit of a compromise. We did the whole college tour thing, and she is drawn to one school because she loved the professor she met in the area of her particular interest. But it's not as strong a school as some of the others. One of the ones I really liked she didn't like at all, was in a rotten mood on the day we visited, and said she'd never go there so I should stop bothering her. It is her choice, mostly, but I am footing the big bill here and think I should have some say. But how much and what? I'm also not even sure which would be the best fit and don't know how to evaluate. Everyone's anectodes are so personal and there is so much contradiction among my friends (all the way from ''this school has really weak academics and the town there has no culture and my daughter couldn't leave fast enough'' to ''I have friends whose kids went there and loved every minute of it and are going back for grad school.'') I'm also dealing with my own feelings about her not getting into one of the more selective schools that we thought she had a great shot at. It feels like a complicated decision and I'm not sure how to support her and help her look at all aspects and long-term implications of her choice. All the schools are back East and we haven't been able to visit them all. Confused, wanting to help make the right choice

Here's my 2 cents. She's the one who will be going to class. She's the one who will be doing the work. Let her go to the school where the professors excited her. We had much the same issue a few years ago. Daughter (now a junior) chose the road less traveled (the less prestigious school). It was the right choice. Dad could not be happier (daughter too)

first, congratulations on having a daughter who has a particular interest and has met a professor whom she likes. i understand why that would sway her. realize she could get into a more impressive college and not like the professors and decide to leave. the most important thing is that she feels great about her choice and has a valid reason for going. liking a professor in a particular area is a valid reason.

if she isn't getting into any of her first choices, that will be sad enough for her, i think you should reassure her and hide your own disappointment. your job is to help her feel good about where she has gotten into and acknowledge how many places accepted her. a smart kid can stand out, get a lot of positive attention and really blossom at a less competitive college. if she had her heart set on somewhere else, she can always transfer after putting in a great year at another college.

big picture: sounds like you have a good kid who tries hard. you should celebrate that. judith

Whoa, slow down. I think you are forgetting that the choice is your daugher's, she is the one who has to go there, and your own feelings of guilt or sorrow about where she got in shouldn't really play a role in the decision.

If your daughter can rule out a few of the 6 schools, that would be helpful in narrowing in. If she really disliked a school, it is not wise to push it just because you liked it! You are not the one who will be attending, and being forced to go to a school that your daughter has emphatically ruled out could make her hate it (and hate you) if she was forced to attend.

Knowing that she could go to a school where there is a wonderful professor in her area of interest could be a strong plus for that school. But this is one factor among many and you can point that out to her as she makes out a list of pros and cons.

She should create a chart with the pros and cons of each school. You can have a row or two in the chart to put in info about the academic strength of the school or some other value important to you. But then she gets to evaluate the pros and cons and should start to rank-order the schools based on her opinions and how much she weights different pros and cons. When she is able to rank the top two schools, she should go visit them again if possible. Then she can make the final decision. I wouldn't consider a school that she has never visited.

You could tell her that you would love to hear her explain to you the pros and cons of each school and how she arrived at her top two rankings. That will help you see her thinking and perhaps allow you to ask a few questions.

The reason there are contradictions in personal anecdotes is because every person is different and some children love one school while others hate it. Also, what the child wants out of college may vary tremendously between children. So in the end, she has to decide.

Nothing is perfect, there isn't always one ''best fit,'' but rather several that would work well for different reasons. So if you can help her understand that, it will be beneficial. Good luck to her (and you)! Anonymous

I think you have to let your daughter make her own choice. Probably all the options will give her a good education, allow her to meet lots of people, give her that first opportunity for independence, prepare her for life, etc. I think her buy-in matters more than which particular school she chooses. And none of your friends opinions really matter--they don't predict her personal experience.

I remember my daughter's first day at UC Santa Cruz. Everyone was so warm and friendly...but then her roommate was a dud and she could never break into the friendships happening on her dorm floor. The next day we took her boyfriend to UC Davis. No one was very friendly. But he ended up making dozens of friends among his dorm mates. Ultimately, both have had perfectly good educations and enjoyed their respective schools. And now they're graduating and life goes on.

You really have no control over how things will go for her. She might fall in with great friends her first year, or none. She might have awesome professors or end up with a bunch of snorers. A university is a huge place and ultimately it will be the experience she makes of it. Give her the tools to make it a good experience and overall, it probably will be. wherever you go, there you are

Yes, it is your money, but it is her life. And yes, everyone's experiences are intensely personal, so it is impossible to predict how your child will feel at any given school. But these decisions are neither permanent nor completely life-altering. She can always transfer if it doesn't work out, and some kids can find things they like regardless of where they land whereas others will complain everywhere. Take a deep breath and just keep asking the right questions. What things are most important to her? Which schools will offer those things? What is the best and worst thing about each one? Ultimately, IMHO, it has to be up to them, unless you have the kind of kid who won't be resentful if you try to run their life or won't blame you if you pick a school that they go to and don't like.

I teach high school seniors and I know plenty of students who got into their dream schools, went there, hated it, and transferred. I know just as many that went to a second or third choice school and loved it. I think the worst thing parents can do is to make young people feel like this is the most important decision they will ever make in their entire lives. It is not. And unless your kid wants to be President and needs to write for the Harvard Law Review, they will probably be just fine regardless of where they go to college their freshman year. Even Obama transferred schools as an undergrad. --Feelin your pain, tryin to remain calm

Insight into college choices

March 2012

Our daughter has (thankfully) begun to receive her college acceptances, and I am hoping to help her make the very best possible choice. She has worked with a great college admissions advisor at her local private school, and this counselor has recommended that our daughter apply to some schools that are relatively unknown to us. Thus, I would so welcome any feedback on any aspect of the academic and/or social life at any of the following schools: Mt. Holyoke in Northampton, MA; Muhlenberg in Allentown, PA; Emerson in Boston; Evergreen in Tacoma, WA; Wheaton in Mass; and Drew University in Madison, NJ. How would you describe the values of the student body? What are the towns like nearby? Dorm life? Our daughter is interested in Theater Arts, Classics, Latin, History, English and Literature. Math, not so much. She's introverted, literate, smart, and absolutely not a party animal. She's applied to other schools I haven't listed because I have a better take on them (Brandeis, Oberlin, etc). I know I'm asking about a lot of schools but we're having a hard time getting to know these colleges despite reading things like College Confidential and making campus visits. Really appreciate any commentary. And if you know of a current student that would be open to chatting with a prospective student, that would really be an added bonus. We can be reached at jump at the sun at Thanks so much!

I can tell you about Mt Holyoke and Evergreen-would not go to Evergreen, unininspiring, lots of pot, lots of unmotivated kids who don't have any plan. Mt Holyoke is preppy, very east coast. They are in fact kind of polar opposites! Smith is great though, if your daughter applied there. parent

Hi, based on your description of your daughter's interests and her party personality, I would highly recommend she look at Mt. Holyoke. I worked with a young woman at Harvard who went to Holyoke and stayed there several times with friends who were teachers. It is in a lovely smallish New England town. Classes are on the smaller side and ore traditional. All schools have such good websites... she can get a good virtual idea.

To me, it seems like a waste of time to consider the details of every school seriously just because your daughter was accepted there. Pick the criteria that are most important for her--which could include being at a school with a strong academic reputation, having a strong program in the area she's most interested in, what part of the country she'd most like to be in, size of the school, reputation of the school, etc.---and then start making a list with the pros and cons of the top 5 or 6 schools. I'd say that she should spend her time thinking about the best contenders and compare them on the criteria she cares the most about. When she narrows it down to 2 or 3 schools, she should then see if it's possible to e-mail students at that school that someone knows so she can find out more about it. Visit the top 2 to make the final choice. Anonymous

Books about choosing a college

Aug 2009

I wandered into a large bookstore today thinking that I would buy a book about choosing a college. My son is only a junior but I like to read non-fiction and thought it would be sort of fun..... That was until I saw the shelves and shelves of books, each purporting to be THE book I need to narrow down the college search. I know about the college board website, but I'd like a paper and ink book I can curl up with. Can anyone recommend a good one or warn me against useless ones? Thanks, kate

We had about 5-6 books on this subject! I think the two most helpful were the Insider's Guide and the Fiske Guide. We also had Colleges that Change Lives, which was good, more focused on a few schools, not comprehensive like the others. What was most helpful in the end was visiting. We did that at Spring break Jr. year and over the summer. Lots of Luck! parent of a college student!

It's worth checking out several books, as each provides a different perspective. Here are some books we found helpful: Colleges that change lives (Loren Pope)--and other books by the same author Students Guide to Colleges (with real students' opinions) (Goldman and Buyers) Fiske Guide to Colleges 371 (or some #) Best Colleges (Princeton Review) college bound

There are big books that help with your search and have statistics on all the possible schools - for that matter College Board has a search program to help you narrow it down... but,for a nice curl up and read book I recommend ''Colleges That Change Lives'' written by a guy named Loren Pope, who spent his career as a college counselor. All 40 schools in the book do something different, and do it well. There is a website for the book and the schools -- Google CTCL.

When we read the book my daughter was planning to attend a Div I NCAA University. Two years later she was injured and out of sports, and transferred to a school she'd encountered in the book (Cornell College, Mt. Vernon, IA). She likes it there so much her brother decided to go there as a freshman this year. Yay! Heather

I was in your shoes a year ago (I just got back from taking my son to college in NYC...YIKES).

There are SO many ''pick me first'' kind of books. I bought a book that was about ''How to choose the right college''. It was a world of info about what questions to ask yourself (the student) about what you want in a college, where you want to be, what do you want to study, how much can you/parents afford, financial aid, etc. GREAT BOOK.

Along with that I got a book called something like ''The best colleges and universities in the US''...I know, there are many that say that. I bet they are much the same. Our book listed TONZ of colleges, large adn small, all over the US, and then it also had sections of ''best colleges for majors''. My son is majoring in theatre, so we looked for theatre colleges, big and small, did they have grad school, how competitive, etc. Hope this helps. I highly recommend the first book I mentioned. Good luck. You think THIS is hard...wait till he leaves!! mom of college guy

I previously posted about a book called ''Getting into the right college''...I just found that book in my house. It's the ''Fiske guide to getting into the right college'' It was really helpful for us. We also have the Fiske Guide to colleges. I think Fiske is a long time known publisher of these types of books. Ours is the 2008 edition, but I bet they don't change much. Good luck. If you want to look at these, let me know. june

''College UNranked:Ending the College Admissions Frenzy'' edited by Lloyd Thacker is a worthy collection of short essays and lectures by many college presidents and admissions officers who are concerned about the students welfare in this ''out-of-control'' college admissions ''contest''. I found many of the pieces contained very practical and insightful lists of questions to ask when evaluating a school; lists of questions that the student can ask of him/herself in evaluating what he/she wants; pieces aimed at the student to give them knowledge and, thus, power in what can seem to be an uncontrollable situation in which they have no power, etc. It helped me to put many parts of this stressful process into perspective so that I could keep my anxiety to a minimum which allowed me to be there for my son when he needed me. You can pick and choose which of the pieces seems interesting or appropriate for your situation. I highly recommend this book. Mom of a New College Freshman

How to find out more about colleges he's considering

Oct 2008

Looking ahead a few months, I am wondering how to locate local students (such as Berkeley high grads), who have gone to a certain college to find out more about their impressions and experiences. My senior is considering a number of colleges that we have no personal connection with (such as Macalester and Scripps) and we would like to talk to current (or recent) students, if possible. Soon to be empty nester

This type of research is best done from the OTHER end - that is, contact the COLLEGE that you're interested and ask them for students who come from certain high schools (or the East Bay in general), and the admissions office will generally be more than happy to have the college students contact you. My daughter, for example, goes to Macalester, has loved every minute of it, and would be happy to talk to your student. You can contact me through the moderator, or contact Mac and ask for referrals to students from the East Bay. Colleges are VERY proactive these days about having their students call/email high school students. mom of 2 seniors (college, h.s.)

I'd go on Facebook and look up the colleges you're interested in - they'll probably have a group, or just people who list that they go to or are alums of that school. You might find people who list BHS also. gotta love the internet

If your child wants information about a college, the best way to check may be through the online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Check out listings for Class of 2012 at the different social networking sites. That would get you in touch with the freshman class that was last year's high school seniors. For example, if you went to Facebook's Chapman University Class of 2012, you would find my son, who loves his school (he's a Theater Performance major). You can also check (you need to register, but it's free), (registration required, but free). Most kids are very happy to discuss what they do or don't like about a school. Chapman Mom

One of the best ways to find the right college is to examine the trade-offs between: going pre-professional on one hand and liberal arts on the other and between getting one degree or going on to grad school. Here is a good rule to use:

One Degree and Pre-Professional
If student is only going to get one degree--then possibly a pre-professional major might matter. Choosing a school which has a good business or engineering program and one that is respected in the student's area of focus may be important. A good measure of quality would to see how many employers interview on campus--these numbers are published by the college.

Graduate Degree Oriented
On the other hand, many students these days wish to attend graduate school. What most people don't know is that liberal arts colleges are the fastest route to JD, MD, MBA and Ph.D programs. The only catch is that most liberal arts colleges are private. The good news is that many offer merit and need based financial aid. So if you feel that you cannot afford $40-50K a year but your student is in the top 10% of their class and has significant academic or athletic talent you may wish to consider these colleges. The main reason I recommend these is that graduate schools prefer liberal arts colleges because of the great job they do in preparing students to write well, think critically and express their ideas in oral argument. If you are able to call your professor by their first name or do research as an undergraduate with your professors it makes a huge difference on your student's resume. For more information about top undergraduate feeder schools here is a link: David

Oct 2007

Parents and students can begin their search online for excellent, often affordable (with merit and need-based aid), but largely unknown colleges.

The first website to explore is - Colleges That Change Lives, from Loren Pope's book of the same name.

The second is - a project of diverse administrators, alumni, and students.

Finally, those exploring in-state schools can look beyond UC's and CSU's at - The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

Remember, no web search can substitute for a campus visit, but it can at least broaden your awareness and start you in the right direction. Eion Lys College Counselor