Choosing a College


Choosing a college can feel overwhelming at the beginning. In this section, we will review the different types of schools and provide the information you need to think through the choice of where to apply. We will discuss evaluating your needs, evaluating community college and 4-year degrees, and address special considerations for active duty applicants.

A Comparison of Different Types of Schools

To begin a discussion of choosing a college, we need to talk about the landscape of colleges. The College Board’s Big Future website provides a great overview of the different types of colleges (
A Comparison of Different Types of Schools (From the College Board):
Public and private colleges
Public colleges are funded by local and state governments and usually offer lower tuition rates than private colleges, especially for students who are residents of the state where a college is located.
Private colleges rely mainly on tuition, fees and private sources of funding. Private donations can sometimes provide generous financial aid packages for students.
Liberal arts colleges
These colleges offer a broad base of courses in the liberal arts, which includes areas such as literature, history, languages, mathematics and life sciences. Most are private and offer four-year programs that lead to a bachelor's degree. These colleges can prepare you for a variety of careers or for graduate study.
Universities often are larger and offer more majors and degree options—bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees—than colleges. Most universities contain several smaller colleges, such as colleges of liberal arts, engineering or health sciences. These colleges can prepare you for a variety of careers or for graduate study.
Community colleges
Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees that prepare you to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor's degree. They also offer other associate degrees and certificates that focus on preparing you for a certain career. Community colleges are often an affordable option with relatively low tuition.
For-profit colleges
These are businesses that offer a variety of degree programs which typically prepare students for a specific career. They tend to have higher costs, which could mean graduating with more debt. Credits earned may not transfer to other colleges, so be sure to check with the admission office at each college.
Choosing Where to Apply
Before applying to college, you have to choose whether or not to follow a traditional, four-year path. Since we won’t be considering for-profit institutions, your other option is to attend a community college. Below is a question set that will help you make your decision:
  • Did you graduate from high school?
  • Did you graduate from high school within the last 4 years?
  • If yes, were you averaging A’s and B’s in high school?
  • Do you have any college experience (online schools do not count)?
  • If yes, did you do well in college?
  • Do you feel academically prepared for a 4-year university?
You should highly consider starting out at a community college if you answered “No” to any of the questions above. Reputable four-year universities do care a great deal about military experience. At the same time, admissions officers are hesitant to accept applicants who lack a recent academic record showing they can pass the academic rigors of an university. Yet, with a year or (preferably) two of college under your belt, those same admissions officers could be receptive to your case.
Community college is a cost-effective way to ease into academic life. Community college allows veterans with not-so-stellar high school records to build academic distance between the person they are now, and the civilian they were before joining the military. Furthermore, going to community college will not prevent you from attending a top-notch university; in fact, almost every veteran who is attending Columbia, Yale or other prestigious institutions as an undergrad transferred in from a community college. And if you have an atrocious high school record but excellent community college grades? Your high school record will hold little weight during the transfer admissions process. In the words of Michael Anderson, a veteran who transferred to Stanford University from a community college, “The first school you attend is merely the start, not the end point, of your academic journey.” Another reason community college is a great option for many transitioning veterans is that it is a good place to acclimate oneself back into the civilian world and to gradually immerse oneself in their studies.

Evaluate College Options Based on Your Needs

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions for college. You will want to reflect on the range of needs you have then evaluating the school options against those needs. Assuming you have already decided which degree type (i.e. community college vs. a four-year degree) is right for you, you should think about some critical factors as you think about what you need personally, educationally, financially, socially, and professionally for the best college experience for you. There are many questions to ask to determine what you need in a school, but consider a few of the most critical below:
  • What do I hope to study, and what schools are known for great undergraduate experiences in this field?
  • What do I hope to do professionally, and what programs are particularly suited for this path?
  • What kind of learning environment do I want (large vs. small class, access to professors, etc.)?
  • What kind of community (e.g. culture, values, student body size) and campus (rural vs. urban) do I want?
  • What extracurriculars and campus resources are important to me?
  • What are my financial constraints, and what implications does this have for school cost?
  • Do I have geographic constraints or preferences?
Starting with these questions will help you refine your thinking about what you want in abstract, then it’s time to start evaluating some of your school options.

How to Evaluate Community Colleges

  • Is the financial aid office squared away? Financial aid staff should be knowledgeable, helpful and resourceful. First, you should talk to a financial aid officer in person or via phone to get a feel for how business is done. Second, talk to students and read reviews online (Google: “Does ________ community college have good financial aid?”). Third, if anything negative comes up, find out if it is a one-time event or common occurrence.
  • What classes are offered? Check to see if the college offers transferrable courses in your major. You may also want to look at the availability of fun classes, such as dance or theatre. Fun classes that don’t fit within your grand scheme help break up the monotony of taking required classes.
  • How close is the college? Those morning drives and commutes add up over time.
  • Is there a counselor who works with veterans? Having someone who regularly speaks with veterans can be helpful, even if they have no prior military experience.
  • Is there a sizable and/or active veteran population on campus? A support network is essential to college success, and can lead to increased proficiency through study groups, social support and networking opportunities. If a network of veterans cannot be found, try other avenues to get that support network. You can also create your own veterans club or group on campus (which looks great on a transfer application)!
  • Are there honors classes, an Honors Department or an Honors Club? Meet some of the best and brightest students on campus through honors coursework and events. While they might not have your real-life experience, honors students tend to be more mature and goal-oriented than their peers, and they can even connect you to other education opportunities. Honors classes may also be easier than regular classes because you’d learn from experienced and higher quality professors.
  • Is there a scholarship office? Google is great but not all scholarships can be found online. The benefit of a scholarship office is that it acts as a one-stop shop for scholarship opportunities. If you don’t know, scholarships are free money that help pay for educational and living expenses.
  • Can I get credit for my military experience? This isn’t as important as the other questions, but it can be nice to have your military experience on a transcript.

How to Evaluate 4-Year Colleges

  • What is the actual cost for attendance? Often you won’t find out exactly how much you’ll actually pay until you are admitted, but you should be able to find a ballpark figure. Actual price for attendance is usually less than the sticker price. This holds especially true for prestigious universities like Stanford, where financial aid is so good you can actually get paid to attend!
  • (If using the Post-9/11 GI Bill and have 100% coverage) Does the university participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program? If so, how much do they offer? The Yellow Ribbon Program allows for colleges and the VA to each give matching amounts of funding towards your educational expenses on top of your GI Bill, though only for those who are eligible for 100% coverage under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. For example, if your college offers $3,000 as part of the Yellow Ribbon Program, the VA will also give $3,000 towards your tuition. This could save you thousands of dollars every year.
  • What is the reputation of the institution? Find out how well established the programs you’re interested in are. Check online and see what former and current students say about the college and the quality of education.
  • How well does the university prepare you for your future career? Explore what classes are available in your potential major, as well as what students say about the professors who teach those classes ( and can provide you with answers).
  • What kinds of opportunities are there for students in your potential major or field of study? Say that you want to be a medical doctor; specifically, one who specializes in psychiatry. In that instance, you would check for internships and work-study opportunities with hospitals or clinical psychology labs. Work/volunteer opportunities will do three things: (a) internships or research within your field of study will give you an insider’s look into your potential future career; (b) networking opportunities will arise from close contact with working professionals; and (c) those jobs look great on a graduate school application or job resume.
  • What are the post-graduation employment statistics? No point in getting a degree if you can’t put it to use.
  • What is the graduation rate? No point in starting at a college with abysmally high dropout rates.
  • (For transfer applicants) How many of my community college classes are transferrable? The answer could mean another year or two of college.
  • Are there veteran-specific resources? A counselor that works with veterans and VA representatives can simplify veteran benefits paperwork.
  • Is there an active veterans population? Having that support network can serve you in many, many ways, from networking and job opportunities to a source for study groups.
  • What else am I looking for? Decide for yourself what else you are looking for in a university, from location to the kind of housing that is provided. The above questions are just meant to help you get started.

Building a Balanced Application Approach

The four-year university admissions process for hopeful transfers or freshmen is labor-intensive, requiring time and thoughtful coordination to bring together all the necessary parts. Thus, you need to refine the list of universities you have evaluated individually into a coherent, balanced list. It needs to be coherent in that all the schools should meet your needs and be great places for you to study. It should be balanced in that it reflects a total number of schools that is achievable to apply to in one application cycle, and in that you balance the competitiveness of the schools you apply to.
To balance the list of schools to which you are applying, you will want to ensure you have some “reaches” (schools with very competitive admissions processes), some “safety schools” (schools you will likely get into), and a few in between. As you refine your list, there are a few things to remember:
  1. 1.
    Don’t self-select out of competitive programs: Make sure you pursue some reach schools. Get feedback from your Ambassador and Service to School on your overall application if you want feedback about whether your reach schools make sense. You will miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
  2. 2.
    Safety schools need to be viable options: Online and for-profit/predatory “colleges” are still not good options, just because they are easy to get in to.
  3. 3.
    Do you research to find the right schools for your list: Schools don’t exist on a single sliding scale—published school rankings are not an established, objective review of all schools in order of quality or competitiveness. While not all schools are equal, even prestigious institutions may not have what you are looking for. Case in point: Stanford University boasts of having the best psychology department in the world, but it does not have a clinical psychology program for undergraduates. On the other hand, the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) has a world-renowned clinical psychology program. What the Stanford-UCLA example shows is that you cannot rely exclusively on name recognition when evaluating universities. You need to know what you want from an undergraduate institution before you can rank your choice schools. ‌
The experience of picking and balancing the schools you want to apply to requires effort. There is no substitute for going to campus and talking to students and staff; reading reviews online and looking for red flags; ignoring the pretty brochures and studying the course list for your potential majors. You’ll have your work cut out for you, but it should also be exciting. And please reach out to Service to School anywhere during this process, we are here to help you. Ultimately, all of this will be easy compared to everything you’ve already been through.

Special Considerations for Active Duty Applicants

Shifting from active duty to full-time school can be a culture shock. For many of us the first question is, “Where do I even start?” Here are some insights to support your transition from service to school.

Three Key Considerations

1. Avoiding for-profit schools: For-profit schools exist to make money and your GI Bill benefits are appealing to them. Graduation rates at for-profit schools are embarrassingly low and since a huge part of our mission is to help you find a pathway to success, we don’t recommend them.
2. Location: Is there a specific place you want to live? Maybe you want to live near the coast or near your family (or as far from your family as possible). There are enough great schools that it is perfectly acceptable to search for colleges in a desirable location.
3. Program: If you know what you want to study, then do an internet search for prestigious programs. For example, you could Google search, “Top undergraduate economics programs.” Don’t apply to a school based solely on a blog post you found in an internet search, but this will at least give you a few names of schools that you can go and do further research on.

Know Your Application Deadline

How much time you have left on active duty and your college admissions deadlines will determine a lot of your planning, so we suggest you make an application timeline. For example, the application deadline to attend University of California and Cal State schools is almost one-year before matriculation (when you enter college). If you miss the deadlines for your choice school though, don’t despair! Many Community Colleges have rolling admissions, meaning you can apply almost right up until classes start, or you could look into an internship.

Should I Take Classes on Active Duty?

Maybe you are thinking, “I have more than a year left on active duty, should I knock out some classes now?” Here is something to consider if you have zero college credits and are considering taking classes: transfer admissions are generally much more competitive than freshman admissions. However, sometimes a school will have you apply as a transfer even with zero college credit just because you are older and more experienced than most freshmen. On the other hand, taking some basic classes using a tuition assistance program could save you from sitting through some potentially dull, but required, classes once you’re out. If you’re set on taking classes, look at the basic degree requirements for your school of choice and try to knock out some of those to save money.
You may also want to find your education office on base and ask about SAT/ACT preparation. Often those offices have great resources and provide free college counseling. Some prep courses offer discounts for veterans, so be sure to ask. Service to School can also point you in the right direction for savings!
Things you should find out about any school you are interested in:
  • When can you start? This will go a long way in helping you plan for the potential time gap between the time you leave active duty (your EAS/ETS date) and your first day of classes.
  • Does the school participate in Yellow Ribbon? If so, how much do they offer? This information can usually be found on the school website. You can also call schools directly, too. For some schools it can be additional thousands of dollars in financial aid and for others, like the University of Michigan, it will cover whatever portion of tuition your GI Bill doesn’t cover.
  • Is there an office/individual dedicated to helping veterans on campus or a military/veteran page on the school’s website? These will give an indicator as to the school’s attitude towards and support for veterans. A campus-based veteran organization can help you adapt to college life.
  • Will you need to take the SAT/ACT? If so, then go find your education office on base and ask about preparation and test dates. Be sure to ask the college if your old test scores are still good. Some schools may waive the testing requirement.
  • What is the retention and graduation rate? This will tell you how many freshmen returned and what percent of students graduate. See College Navigator on our resources page (Guidebook Section 9) for a convenient way to check this.
  • Who is the Certifying Official on campus? This person will verify your attendance and benefits with the VA and will be a valuable resource for you.
Will the school grant credit for military service? You may have a Joint Service Transcript (JST), which shows that some of your training has been certified by ACE for credit. If not, see if you can get credit based on your DD214.

Webinar Recordings

1.) The College Search & Your Career- Listen to our conversation with veterans from Amherst College, Pomona College and Williams College as we discussed how the Liberal Arts leads to success in Law, Medicine and Business. This is a fantastic opportunity for prospective veteran students to gain insight into colleges that will best support their long term professional goals.

2.) The College Fit Factor: Public Universities- Our undergrad ops team joined forces with Arizona State University, Texas A & M University, and University of Michigan to discuss how to determine which college is the right fit for you. If you are interested in learning more about public universities then check this out!

To view this webinar recording, please visit: The College Fit Factor
3.) Undergraduate Admission Information Session for Military- Affiliated Students- If you are interested in learning more about the value of a Liberal Arts educations then this is for you! During this information session you will hear from Amherst College, Pomona College, Princeton University, Williams College, and Yale University as they discuss common philosophy, financial aid, admissions review process, and general tips for the college admissions process.
4.) The College Fit Mythbusters- Deciding what colleges to apply to is a personal journey that starts with understanding what is most important to you. But misinformation can get in the way of creating a list that best fits you as an individual. Join us as Sydney Matthes, an expert in college admissions and Service to School Ambassador, dispels common myths and discusses the first steps to creating your college list.