By Sarah Wright
1. Campus Culture
At smaller schools, certain ideologies can tend to prevail among a student body. Often, there's nothing nefarious going on - it's just a logical convergence of like-minded people. But if you're, say, pretty strongly politically conservative, you probably won't be too happy at one of the nation's notoriously liberal liberal arts colleges. Visiting the campus and talking to students should give you a good idea of whether or not you'd feel comfortable with the prevailing culture on campus, or if there are niches of students with whom you could feel at home being different from the norm.
2. Academic Environment
Academic culture can vary from school to school as well. It's a good idea to talk to professors and students, sit in on classes and pay attention to student-professor ratios. If you're ok with learning in large lecture halls without much input from the class, a high student-professor ratio might be just fine for you. But if you'd rather take part in discussion groups and have a more personal interaction with your professors, you should seek out schools with a lower ratio. Also, finding out how much homework students tend to do, and how seriously they take it, can give you a good idea of whether the school's academic climate is right for you.
3. Entertainment Opportunities
This category should not be the number one thing you consider when choosing a school, but it is nonetheless important to ensure that you'll get some enjoyment from life while you're in college. Think about how important it will be for you to get off campus and do things, and whether or not you'll have the means (car, bike or public transit) to do so. Will there be enough to do on campus, and will any of it be stuff that interests you? This is the sort of thing you can learn both through in-person visits and online.
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4. Departmental Offerings
If you have your heart set on learning Japanese or Arabic in college, you should probably narrow your choices down to schools that offer those subjects. It can seem more obvious to check out what classes and departments exist at small schools, but even large universities sometimes have gaps in their offerings. The 'right' school may not have every single class you would want to take, but it should hit all the major areas of interest for you, particularly any subject you think you might want to major in.
5. Lifestyle Compatibility
If you're a vegan, you'll probably want to find a school that not only provides options for you in the cafeteria, but doesn't have a student body that will treat you like you're from Mars just because you have a specific dietary preference. Paying attention to what day-to-day life might be like on campus is an important way to figure out whether the school is right for you. This is an especially hard thing to determine, but in-person visits and discussions with students and staff should help you get a good read on what life would be like if you attended a certain school. Sometimes, it can be simple to figure out. For example, if the idea of attending a frat party is nightmarish to you, attending a school with a strong 'Greek' culture probably isn't going to be a great experience.
Don't worry too much about social life. You can find your niche at any school with just a little bit of effort.