I would say that my choice of schools for higher education was pragmatic more than anything else – something that not too far from the family, affordable in terms of expenses (rent, etc.) and still decent from an academic point of view.
A little caveat – as I started my higher education in France I didn’t actually go to university at first but went to a “classe préparatoire” (two years of intense classes to prepare to take entrance exams to “grandes écoles”, engineering schools or other types of specialised schools) and then to an engineering school. There are obviously many universities in France but for some STEM fields their diplomas are not as highly regarded as those from specialised schools.
In any case, I can’t remember what the exact application process was back in 2003 but I do believe that you could submit your dossier to up to five prépas. In the end, I ended up getting accepted into the best local prépa (arguably in the top 2 or 3 of non-Parisian scientific prépas). It was a great choice because it allowed me to live at home during those two years where having six hours of chemistry class in a row or finishing at 8pm because of mock exams (after a very early start) was considered normal.
I chose which engineering school to go to based on which school would have me (based on a ranking of exam results), what courses were offered and location. In the end, I moved to a city about 60km from Marseille and attended a tiny school (each graduating class must have had around 30 students when most other schools had a minimum of 300) located right in the city center. It was great because all the students got to know each other rather well and I could still come home during the weekends (and bring back tupperware full of home cooked food for the week – I’m a good cook but I’ll never say no to my parents’ home cooked meals).
During this time I also had a few internships that progressively brought me further and further from home – first one in Marseille, second in France-Comté and third one in Finland. And once I was in Finland, continuing on to a PhD as part of the local research group was a no-brainer! It was a small research group, doctoral studies/programmes in Finland (at the time and maybe still today) left students with loads of freedom to pursue their interests and my supervisor was fine with me going for a double diploma with a French school (my idea was that this would help me get a job back in France later on).
Overall, looking back, I must say that I am rather happy with the choices I made for my higher education. I definitely was not ready to live on my own/far away from my family at 17 (or even 21) and there’s absolutely no shame in that! I guess going to a smaller school also helped me avoid getting overwhelmed by too many new people, new classes, new freedoms at once. I eventually learnt to embrace new experiences and academic freedom but it took me quite some time to figure out how to set my own deadlines and respect them!