How to select your ideal “dream school”

The most important factors to consider before going all in

Your post-year plans should be in your own hands.

Allie Wang

Your post-year plans should be in your own hands.

During the spring or fall semester of junior year, many students begin what is widely known as “the college process.” For those interested in pursuing a 4-year college education, part of that process includes putting together a list of colleges, with dream schools typically at the focal point of that list. 

“Almost everybody starts with their dream school, and works their way down to their safeties,” Seppy Basili, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation said in an interview with U.S. News.  

So, what is an ideal “dream school?” 

Selecting a dream school does not necessarily mean going for what the Princeton Review suggests as the best option. Their correlation between dream and reach schools might be true in some cases, but a dream school does not have to be a highly selective university. There are many factors besides popularity students should consider before forming a college list, such as those listed below. Take the time to thoroughly research the schools you are interested in before formulating a final decision. 


Do you prefer an urban or suburban campus? City or rural? How far away are you from home? For instance, if you are a Los Angeles native, it might be difficult adjusting to a more rural campus. If you are used to sunny weather and are not fond of trekking through rain and storms in the East Coast, try selecting a school in California. 

Most importantly, will the location offer opportunities in your area of interest? Silicon Valley might offer more internships in technology and engineering, while Washington DC might be better for anyone interested in government, law, politics or history. Choose wisely based on your postgraduate goals. 

If you are able to, do a virtual tour and information session if those schools offer one. In my fall semester of junior year, I completed  several of these sessions, which either strengthened or weakened my interest in schools I had a potential interest in. If you enjoy the virtual tour for a certain school, do not be afraid to schedule an in-person tour! 



Look at average student-professor ratios. Professors might be more accessible in smaller schools than in a large public university. Do you thrive in smaller discussions with a professor, or in large seminars with a graduate student? 

In addition, research undergraduate populations. If you prefer smaller class sizes, a smaller liberal arts college such as Williams or Amherst might be better. If you do not mind a larger campus, a public university such as the UCs might work. However, if you aren’t quite sure about the prospect of leaving home too soon, there are alternate options such as community college or the local California State Universities that are also contingent upon personal qualifications and goals. It is important to remember that not everyone’s dream school is going to be a prestigious top 20; there are many valid options for students looking to start the next chapter of their lives, even if that chapter is not based in academics. Some are aiming for the Ivy League, while others might want to go to trade school, or even the military; everyone is different in their post-graduate decisions. 

Do not forget to reflect on your high school experience in terms of transitioning to college. If you come from a smaller high school, UCLA might be bigger than what you are used to. 



When ranking schools, it is easy to just look at the overall U.S. News report, and go off the top 10-20 schools. However, based on your specific major, the ranking for the specific program might shift a little. This also just does not apply to majors and minors only. Some schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania, offer dual degrees. Other schools have concentrations within majors. Again, every student has their unique set of priorities and preferences. 

If you are still undecided on what you want to major in, look for a school that might have several interdisciplinary majors. If you are undecided but still have to select a college within that university, look for a university with a broad arts and sciences spectrum. Most colleges want you to declare a major your second year, but look at each school for their requirements on major decisions. 


Career and Postgraduate Support:

This might relate to your academic area of focus, but when deciding on a school, look for opportunities the school might offer to help prepare you for postgraduate plans. A school with strong advisement programs might be helpful for anyone planning on going to law, business or medical school. During your time on campus, you might think about getting a job or internship. Does the school make these opportunities accessible for you? Are professors available to help you when the time comes? 


School Culture and Student Life:

If you have a chance to visit a college when school is fully in session, take a look around you, and do not be afraid to take notes. One campus might seem surprisingly, strikingly different from the other just because of the student culture. Do you prefer being in a quiet, independent environment, or do you enjoy a strong sense of community? Do you thrive in a competitive atmosphere or want a good balance between academics and social life? If you have the opportunity, communicate with a current student.

All of these factors should be considered when making a decision; that being said, don’t be afraid to consult a trusted mentor. However, you should always be at the forefront in deciding your next four years. In a changing world, it can be difficult to make a decision without the opinions of others. Make the right choice for yourself and choose the right path that works best for you.