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Choosing a college is one of the first and biggest decisions young adults face on their path to successful careers. Picking the right college is a life-altering choice: Obtaining a degree will translate into a higher standard of living, greater social mobility and increased earning power during your working life.

According to the College Board, there are nearly 5,000 colleges and universities to choose from in the United States. With so many options, this means that college isn’t one-size-fits-all, and selecting one isn’t a perfect science. “College is about growing, learning and changing—and discovering things about yourself and about the college,” says Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy. “There are things that you can’t know right now about yourself and about the college, and yet you’re trying to make matches with respect to that. So the best that you’re doing is precision guesswork.”

Dean Skarlis, founder and president of the College Advisor of New York, has a more practical approach to helping families and their children find the right-fit college. “No longer are the days where parents tell their children, ‘Choose where you want to go and we will figure out how to pay for it,’” says Skarlis. “Tuition for some schools can be well over $60,000 a year without financial aid. The new model for selecting colleges nowadays is more holistic … factoring in how a school measures up programmatically, financially, academically and socially. These types of conversations need to happen early in the college-selection process.”

So whether you are at the beginning, the middle or close to the end of the college-decision process, reflect on the following factors to help you feel most confident and secure about your “precise guess.”

1. Test scores and selectivity: It seems as if most ambitious and driven students with SAT scores of 2100 or higher, stellar community service and near-perfect GPAs dream of attending one of the eight Ivy League schools. Outside of the instant ego boost, many students want to attend Ivy Leagues because they believe that attending these schools will translate into higher earnings over the course of their work life.

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The jury is still out on this commonly held notion. In 1998 a study (pdf) conducted by researchers at Rand Corp. and Cornell and Brigham Young universities found that Ivy League graduates earned as much as 39 percent more than those who went to second-tier schools. But the next year a similar study (pdf) was conducted, with seemingly opposite findings. Princeton professor and economist Alan Krueger and his fellow researcher Stacy Berg Dale found that when students performed well enough to enter an Ivy League school but instead went to a second-tier school, they earned just as much money as their Ivy League counterparts. This study was released again in 2007 with updated data and the same conclusion.

Despite the conflicting empirical data, an Ivy League pedigree is often known to create the “halo effect,” which means that employers, recruiters and potential customers subconsciously view those with elite education as more competent, capable, trustworthy or intelligent. In some cases this halo effect results in accelerated career growth, such as acceptance into exclusive networking circles, larger projects, more freedom to create and opportunities for leadership early on in an Ivy League graduate’s working life.

In other cases, the degree may only help them get noticed in a crowd. Recently, Skarlis was looking to hire an admissions coach. “In a stack of 40 résumés, the Harvard graduate was the first to be called and interviewed, but a graduate of SUNY Albany was hired,” he says. “The moral of the story is that the Ivy degree will get your foot in the door, but it may not land you the job.”

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2. A preferred learning style and environment: The size of a school can really affect how successful you will be during your undergraduate experience. Traditionally, liberal arts colleges tend to have only a few thousand undergrads. With such a small community of learners, you will have the opportunity to get to know professors well, enjoy the benefits of small class sizes, and feel a strong sense of community and connection. Small liberal arts colleges and universities also offer and provide students with a lot of personal attention from professors and advisers, as well as the chance for hands-on learning and individually designed majors.

On the other hand, attending large public or private universities also has its benefits. In addition to providing you with the anonymity that comes with being one among many thousands of students, picking larger universities may also bring a wide variety of majors and courses, state-of-the-art research facilities, a variety of housing opportunities, well-stocked libraries and a distinguished faculty.

3. Career goals: Do you know exactly what career path you want to take once you graduate? Entering college with a clear picture of your career focus makes the college-selection process more straightforward.

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“Choosing a school without a goal in mind and simply for the name can be a fool’s game,“ says LaTisha Styles, founder of Young Finances. “With that in mind, you might want to work backwards before choosing a college. That is, choose a few companies that you would consider working for, then research the team and see what colleges they attended.”

The colleges and universities that offer majors that align with the skill set needed to excel in your chosen field will, then, top your list of schools. Skarlis opines that Babson College is a great choice for majoring in business, Villanova University for biology, Clark University in Massachusetts for psychology and DeSales University for physician assistance.

4. Finances: According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, student-loan debt has reached a new milestone, crossing the $1.2 trillion mark—$1 trillion of that in federal-student-loan debt. So when it comes to picking the right college, the cost of your investment has to be taken into account.

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“The costs associated with a college degree could remain with you for several years after you graduate. Avoid taking on more than you expect to make in your first year,” Styles says. “For an expected starting salary of $43,000, your total debt burden should be no more than $43,000. Or, even better, begin at a less expensive two-year college, then transfer to a better-known college to finish. You’ll save money and get the big-name degree at the same time.”

5. A strong school culture: Many undergraduates go to college to both explore and deepen their racial, sexual and gender identities in a safe space with like-minded peers. Attending an HBCU like Howard University, Spelman College, Lincoln University or Hampton University may be ideal for African-American and multiracial young adults who want to connect with their African-American heritage by immersing themselves in a school culture that celebrates and extols it. 

Similarly, for young women who strongly identify with women’s issues or learn best in a single-sex environment, a women’s college—like Smith, Barnard, Agnes Scott or Mount Holyoke—might be a good fit.

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Finally, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youths seeking support, comfort and camaraderie may elect to attend a school like Oberlin College, American University or New York University, all of which Newsweek ranks as LGBT-friendly.

Although it may seem like a big headache, staying diligent, deliberate and discerning throughout the college-selection process can yield tremendous rewards. “When a student finds the right fit, they will flourish and have a positive experience,” Skarlis says, “and all of the hard work would have been worth it.”

For more, read "10 College Majors Gauranteed to Earn the Biggest Bucks" and "7 Creative Ways to Find Cash for College"

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Kara Stevens is the founder of the personal-finance and lifestyle blog the Frugal Feminista, where you can download her free e-book, The 5-Day Financial Reset Plan: Eliminate Debt, Know Your Worth and Heal Your Relationship With Money in Just 5 Days. Connect with her on Twitter.