Going to college is a big decision. A lot of people tell you the first step is picking the right college to go to. But they’re wrong.

The first step is picking the right type of college to go to.

There are distinctly different kinds of colleges, each with their own benefits, costs, and admissions requirements. Knowing which type is right for you is an essential first step.

Free download: the Simplified Guide to the 5 Types of Colleges

With so many colleges out there, knowing what type you want will really help narrow down the selection process--as well as help you know how best to prepare. And most importantly, don’t apply to too many (or too few!) of the right kind of college for you.

Read: How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

We’ve identified 5 major categories of colleges -- some of them will be familiar, but some might surprise you!

1) “Traditional” 4-year Colleges and Universities

This is what most people think of when they think about the “traditional” college experience. Traditional 4-years have typical classroom settings and normally offer Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees in a broad variety of common fields.  You’ll find everything from Political Science to English to Engineering at most traditional 4-years.

"Don't confuse 'traditional' for 'normal.'"

Don’t confuse “traditional” for “normal.” Contrary to common belief, most college students don’t start at a school like this. Almost half of 4-year school graduates actually started at the next type of school...

2) 2-year Colleges

Sometimes known as community colleges or junior colleges, 2-year schools are increasingly popular. One of the biggest benefits of 2-year schools is the affordability. You don’t have to take on a lifetime of debt to attend a 2-year college!

One of th biggest benfits of 2-year schools is affordability.

2-year colleges tend to offer two major educational tracts: vocational, and transfer. The difference is that vocational programs are 2-year programs that directly prepare a person to go into a specific field -- think very specific here, like HVAC Technician.

Transfer-focused programs still result in you earning a 2-year associate degree, but the curriculum (and credits!) are designed specifically to transfer to a 4-year school so you can apply them to earning a bachelor’s degree.

This plan is commonly called the “2+2 College Plan” because students spend 2 years at a community college and then 2 years at a 4-year school.

With 4-year schools becoming increasingly expensive, it’s no surprise more and more students choose 2+2.

Read: 6 Infamous Myths About Community College

3) Comprehensive Institutions

These institutions offer a combination of associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, graduate degrees, and even doctoral degrees all in one place!

Many 4-year universities also offer graduate programs, and some community colleges offer extended 4-year bachelor’s degrees, so the lines can get a bit blurry here.

Comprehensive institutions can be a good choice for people who know they want to earn advanced graduate or even doctoral degrees, because comprehensive institutions can sometimes offer a combined (and therefore shortened) path. If you want something like a “5-year master’s/bachelor’s degree,” comprehensive institutions are the way to go.

4) Military Academies

Military academies combine education with military training. These are large, structured, and highly disciplined institutions. There are five federally funded military academies in the US -- each focused on one branch of the US military: Military, Navy, Airforce, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines.

The primary focus of these schools is to prepare military officers for service.

Tuition at these academies is totally free, but the application process is incredibly competitive and requires academic excellence, a physical examination, and an official nomination from a US Congressperson.

Typically, graduates are required to serve in the armed forces for several years as well. So tuition is free, but students still "pay" with their service.

For those who want a military style education but can’t get in to one of the big five, there are also state-funded and private military institutions. Their admissions requirements and tuition can vary -- but typically are less competitive, and more expensive, than the five federally funded military academies.

5) Specialized Colleges

Specialized colleges focus on one or two specific areas. They can be 2-year, or 4-year, but always have narrow educational offerings.

Specialized colleges are great if you know exactly what you want. Common areas of focus include performing and visual arts, agriculture, and even religious vocation.

Now that you have a better understanding of the kind of college that’s right for you, you can start to narrow down your college search and make sure all the application requirements are being met.

Get the simplified guide to the 5 types of colleges.

Authored by Jared Meyer

Jared specializes in communication in higher education. He writes about getting into college and succeeding once you're there. He's the editor of the American Honors Blog.