How to Start Your College Search

How to Start Your College Search

It’s summer, which means if you’re going to be a junior or a senior in high school, it’s the perfect time to start your college search.

Most likely, your inbox and your mailbox have already been flooded with emails, brochures and booklets about lots of colleges all over the country. So how do you know where to start and what you should be looking for?

Here are five steps to start figuring out which colleges would be the best fit for you:

  1. Create a Vision
    Before you do anything else, the first step to finding the right college is coming up with a vision for everything you’d like in your college experience. Don’t limit yourself to places you think you can afford just yet – let yourself dream. Write down any detail that you can think of, no matter how small. It’s good just to get your thoughts on paper!

    Here are some questions to get your started in your college search:

  • Are you looking for a two-year or a four-year college?
  • Do you want to go to a small school (less than 2,000 people), a medium-sized school (less than 15,000 people) or a large school (more than 15,000 people)?
  • Do you want to go to a college that you can commute to or one where students live on campus?
  • Would you be happy in a rural setting? A suburban setting? In a city?
  • Are you looking for a college with any special majors or extracurricular activities? For example, if you love art, or mountain climbing or politics, you may be able to find a college that specializes in those areas.

If you don’t have an answer or don’t care about one of the questions above, that’s ok. By not answering a question, you will keep more options open. The important part is to figure out what things really do matter to you. (For help narrowing down your list, check out Big Future, a website run by the College Board, which has a great interactive tool).

  1. Have a Conversation
    Now that you’ve come up with your dream college, it’s time to bring some reality to the table. Have a conversation with your parents about what you’d like in a college and ask them about what, if anything, they will be able to contribute to the cost. Don’t freak out if your parents can’t afford the entire price of tuition. Almost everyone can qualify for some combination of student loans, work study and college scholarships to cover the costs, but it’s important to know what your financial parameters are before you begin.
  2. Look at Your Scores
    Next, take a look at your grades and SAT or ACT scores. When you start looking at which colleges to apply to, you’ll want to look for a few that will be hard to get into (stretch schools), a few you might be able to get into, and a few you’ll definitely be able to get into (safety schools). For each school that you’re interested in, you can look up the average SAT and ACT scores of their applicants to see how you compare. Here’s a list of of 101 popular colleges around the country and their average SAT scores to get you started.
  3. Gather Information
    Remember those brochures and pamphlets you’ve been getting in the mail? Now is the time to open those up and see if they fit your criteria. You can also go back to Big Future to sort through schools or buy a college guide book such as ones by the Princeton Review, S. News and World Report, or the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which have descriptions of thousands of schools around the country broken down into helpful categories. Make a list of all of the schools that interest you.
  4. Schedule Some College Visits
    The summer is a great time to schedule some college visits, so if possible, ask your parents if they’d be willing to take a trip to see some of the top colleges on your list. If you can’t afford to fly to schools across the country, make a point to visit at least one school that you can drive to so you can get a sense of what college life is like; then you can schedule a visit later to the schools you actually get into.

    When you visit a college, remember that the goal is to try to gather as much information as possible to see if this school would be the right fit for you. It’s a good idea to call the admissions office and schedule a campus tour. Walk around the campus and check out the dorms, the dining halls, the library and other facilities. Don’t be afraid to ask the students you meet about their experience; you can even ask to talk with professors or coaches, too. And while you’re there, see if you can schedule an interview with an admissions officer. One tip: Pick up people’s business cards while you’re there so you can call them back later with questions that you forgot to ask.

Once you get this far, you should start to have a good idea of where you’d like to apply. Now it’s just about finding out when the application deadlines are and getting your applications in on time.

If you’re only a freshman or sophomore, it’s not too early to start thinking about colleges either. If you know where you want to go early, you can work even harder in high school to bring up your grades and test scores to help you get into your top choice. Good luck!