Deciding Exactly Where to Apply to College

05/28/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

It's usually the most important two decisions you'll make in the entire college process:

Deciding exactly where to apply... and how to pick the right college.

And -- while there's no shortage of information available to college-bound families -- so many people still get it wrong!

Here's what I mean by that... and how you can get it right.

Are you worrying about spreading the field between a bunch of schools, potentially setting yourself up for a scramble at the end, sorting through all the acceptance letters?

The truth is that's what most people do. But right now, outside of elite and reach schools, most students have a very good shot of getting into 'roughly' 70% of colleges and universities they apply to (again, as long as they are being realistic with where they are applying!). And, if well chosen, getting into a 'safety school' should be a lock.

Rather than try the buckshot approach, you can easily afford to be more selective with your applications.

That means a few things...

1. Apply to schools especially in-line with your interests.
A so-so school might have an exceptional writing program, or a world-class pre-med track. If you have a possible career in mind, let that be your primary guide.

2. Pick the right region of the country.
You may or may not want to be in the same city you grew up in. But it's a great idea to determine what's too close, and what's too far, for your tastes. Just the same, your parents need to think about how often they'll most likely be visiting (as well as you visiting home), and what those travel costs may add up to (over the course of 4 years.)

If you're having trouble deciding between similar schools, even something as simple as figuring out optimal travel arrangements, costs and timing can make life much more pleasant (and affordable) over the next four years. (Picking a favorite region also can save money during college tours.)

3. Understand the (net) difference in price
Even with schools that share similar sticker prices, you'll soon find that aid packages and extras can differ widely. Your safety school, for instance, may have special scholarships to try and lure the best and brightest to their campus. Your reach school might charge full tuition for a year abroad - or you might just have to pay local prices (which are usually much lower). There may be scholarships for pursuing certain specialties.

That last one is very important. Often, a school without a reputation in a particular field - if it's trying to change that - will be pulling out all the stops. They'll be paying high salaries to grab big names in the field and they'll be pouring cash into new facilities... and they'll have special scholarships to get the best students as well.

It's a win-win situation in every way - great professors, great dormitories, and great price breaks. This is often the case in the sciences - especially newer sciences, like genetics or informatics - but you can find similar deals in the humanities (especially at schools with big science reputations).

Aside from these special situations, every school has a different policy regarding financial aid.
Some schools are very giving just by you getting accepted and some schools, on the other hand, are extremely picky. You will essentially need to be on the lower income end of the scale in order to qualify.
Most places are somewhere in between.

Now, rather than figuring all that out once you know where you've been accepted, you should make this a factor when deciding where to apply. You really only need five or six schools - more if you're going for a bunch of reaches or Ivies - and you'll find in each category that there will be a plethora of schools that are virtually indistinguishable.

Even after visiting campuses and sizing everything up, there will likely be dozens of schools that would make both you and your parent's pocketbook happy.

That's when you check out the financial packages available, such as your likelihood of getting those packages and any special deals that are out there.

Don't do it last - after the application has already been sent. Do it first, as you decide where to send those applications. That's how you pick the right college - and help keep it as affordable as possible.

Until next time,