How to choose a college (by planning to fail)

Choosing the right college is a life-changing decision, but you don't need to freak out over it. Here's how to choose the right college in just 3 steps.

Ramit Sethi

When I was applying to colleges, I noticed something interesting.

A lot of the people I knew were applying to top schools, and if they were rejected they’d say: “Whatever, I didn’t want to go there anyway.”


If you didn’t want to go, then why’d you apply? And if you DID want to go, why give up so easily?

Let’s be frank: Choosing the right college can be a life-changing decision. You shouldn’t be casual or glib about it. But you also don’t need to freak out over the decision.

Today I’m going to teach you the 3 steps to choosing the right college for you.

Step #1: Minimize your choices

This is how the application process went when I applied to college…

You had your reach school, your safety school, and then the 15 other ones in between that you applied to just because.

And based on what I hear from soon-to-be college freshman, that hasn’t changed.

But that’s crazy! Applying to that many schools creates undue stress. Even worse, it wastes your time. Time you could be spending on schoolwork, hanging out with your friends or planning what you’re going to do in case you don’t get accepted to your top choice. (See #2 below.)

Here’s the most important question you should be asking when you’re wondering whether or not to apply to a certain school: “If I’m accepted, will I go?”

In other words, have a good reason for applying to each of your schools and don’t waste your mental energy on anything else.

How do you minimize your choices? Get clear on your top 3 criteria.

There’s an endless list of factors to consider when you’re choosing a college:

  • location
  • whether or not they offer financial aid
  • geographical and social environment
  • size
  • admission requirements
  • housing options
  • libraries and facilities
  • sports (whatever those are)
  • academics
  • expenses
  • population
  • study abroad programs

Identify your top 3 requirements and then narrow your list of schools down to a manageable size. And keep asking yourself, “If I got in ONLY here, would I go?” If the answer is no, take it off the list.

Then, when it’s time to cut your list down even more, visit your top choices.

Step #2: Visit your top choices

It blows my mind how many people tell me they picked a college because their best friend or girlfriend was going. For some, the first time they stepped foot on campus was when their parents moved them into their dorm room!

Okay, so maybe nobody was going to follow me to college…

If you’re going to say yes to four years in one place, and you’re going to invest (or win) hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it, you better know as much as possible about what you’re getting into.

My advice for getting the most out of your college visits:

  1. Visit when school is in session. Obvious but often forgotten. A campus feels very different when school is in session.
  2. Ask smart questions. Don’t just try and confirm your opinion. Look for opportunities to change your mind by asking about the weaknesses of the school. This is something most people miss. They’re so intent on liking it that they fail to investigate what they might not like about it.

After these visits are complete, cross more choices off your list and start putting your failure plan into place.

Step #3: Plan for failure

I fully expected to get rejected from my dream school (Stanford). That’s why I outlined a plan of specific actions I’d take to get in even after they rejected me. I was going to send them updates on my coursework, my copywriting business, and press clippings of articles I wrote.

Getting a “no” was only the first step of the process.

That’s how it is in other areas of life as well. From selling to dating to business — to just about anything. We need to expect failure and plan what we’ll do when rejection comes.

That’s exactly what top performers do.

James Altucher, author of Choose Yourself, talked about this process when we sat down for a talk on how to deal with failure.


We all face a fear of failure. It’s how you manage the fear of failure that determines your success. College is just one of many tests of this in your life.

Imagine getting rejected from your number one choice. What are you going to do to make them take another look?

Bonus Step: How to eliminate worry

Worrying and the college application process typically go hand in hand. You worry if you’re going to get in, you worry what choice to make when you do, you worry about how to pay for it, and you worry about how everyone in your life is going to feel about your decision.

It’s easy to get so caught up in all of it that you start to doubt yourself, do things that sabotage your chances of getting what you want, and make decisions that are not in your best interest.

If you tend to borrow trouble like it’s an Olympic sport, I’ve developed a simple strategy that can help.

Sign up below and I’ll send you my video, “Eliminate 99% of Your Worries With This One Simple Technique” so you can get through the application process with ease.

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