The College Search Process: Finding the Right College Match

Senior Associate Director of Admissions, Director of External Relations, Denison University

One of the strengths of the higher education system in the United States is the myriad of college options for high school graduates. But with so many college choices available and the variety among institutions, how do you go about the process of selecting the best fit without being overwhelmed? The college search is a great opportunity for young adults to begin discovering who they are and who they want to become, so it’s important to remember that the search begins and ends with you. It is a long journey, but if you plan ahead, and take it one step at a time, you will be just fine. It is a process of self-discovery that will end not only with an ideal college match, but with a better understanding of yourself that will serve you well during your college years and beyond.

Most students begin the college search with the assumption that there is only one college that is right for them, and they somehow have to discover which one it is from the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. The truth is, there are probably many colleges where you will be happy and successful, and if you put the proper time and effort into the college search, you will end up with a good college match.

So how does one go about narrowing down the list? Start with asking yourself the toughest question of all: Who are you? Are you shy or outgoing? Do you like to play it safe or take calculated risks? Do you like to participate in classroom discussions or are you more of a listener? Are you the type of student who can work independently or do you need more individual attention from your teachers? Are you comfortable being around classmates who are different from you or are you more at ease with those similar to you? Knowing your own personality, your strengths and weaknesses, the things that excite you or make you nervous, and your appetite for risk—these can be difficult questions for sure, but they are vital when thinking about which college is the best fit for you.

Next, ask yourself this question: does this college offer what I’m looking for? Many prospective students make the mistake of assuming this means their intended major. The fact is that many high school students are undecided upon entering college, so an intended major—although an important component—does not always have to be the main focus in beginning the college search. Instead, ask yourself, does this college have the academic rigor you want? Does it offer the right blend of extracurricular activities? Will it provide the necessary aid for you to attend? Does the college’s personality match that of your own?

You should take your own “personal inventory” of what college-related considerations are most important to you. Some of these considerations should include:

  • Size—What size college will be the best fit both academically and socially? A liberal arts college with small class sizes, greater access to faculty, and guaranteed housing? Or a larger, research-based university with more choices and resources?
  • Location—Do I want to attend college in a rural, suburban, or urban area?
  • Distance from home—Do I want to be far away and on my own or close enough to travel home on the weekends?
  • Academic programs, opportunities, and outcomes—Does the college offer the programs of study that interest me? Can I study abroad? Are internships readily available? Can I conduct research with faculty or on my own? How strong is the career services department and can I connect with the alumni network?
  • Extracurricular activities and interests—Does the college offer what I’m looking for when I’m not in class? How readily available are opportunities in art, music, theater, community service, or athletics?
  • Student diversity—When I envision my classmates, what do they look like? Do they act, think, and look like me? Or am I more interested in surrounding myself and learning from students who maybe different from me?
  • Academic rigor—Is the intellectual challenge at this college one I’m ready and willing to undertake?

Sources of information about colleges

After determining which of these considerations are most important, you can begin to research possible colleges that appear to be what you are looking for. Be cautious about adding colleges to your list just because they are considered “prestigious.” Conversely, be open to schools with which you may not be as familiar. You should never feel alone during the college search. Ask for assistance early and often. Guidance counselors, teachers, friends, and family are all good resources to use when beginning to compile your list of possible colleges.

Publications and their websites like Private Colleges & Universities, Peterson’s The Insider’s Guide to Colleges, The Fiske Guide, Colleges That Change Lives, and The Princeton Review are all great places to start your research. Try to come up with a preliminary list of 12–15 colleges that seem like a good fit. Once you have identified potential colleges, check out their websites, see if there’s anyone you know at the school, attend local college fairs, speak with admission staff members or alumni, and attend information sessions from college representatives who visit your high school or area.

The campus visit

After you have narrowed your list to a manageable number, it is time to begin thinking about visiting their campuses. You may not be able to visit all of the colleges on your list, but try to see as many as you can. The best time to do so is when the college is alive with students, classes are in session, faculty are accessible, and the campus is buzzing with activity. What should you do during a visit? Well, that’s up to you, but to get a true sense of the college’s personality, you should take a student-led tour, have an admission interview, or attend an information session if a personal interview is not offered. You may also want to attend a class in your area of interest, meet with an athletic coach, attend a theater production or student recital, or spend a night in a dorm. Poke around campus after your tour, try to eat lunch in the dining hall, pick up a copy of the school’s newspaper, and look around at the bulletin boards. Colleges are more than just some arrangement of pretty buildings surrounding a grassy quad; they are communities of people with their own distinct dynamics. A successful college visit will end with an understanding and appreciation of the college’s personality, and whether a match exists with your own.

While the academic year is the best time to visit, it is surely not the only time. For many students and their families, summer is much more convenient for job and school schedules. Perhaps you can make some stops on your way to the beach, amusement park, or family reunion. This may be the only opportunity to visit some of the colleges on your list. Most schools will have summer hours where students can take a campus tour, have an admission interview, or attend an information session. If you cannot visit a particular school, it may offer a virtual tour on its website or opportunities to connect through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Take advantage of these opportunities!

Deciding where to apply

Your college list will probably be somewhat fluid, as some colleges are removed, while others are added. Continue to speak with your guidance counselor and family to help pare down your final list of colleges. While there is no right answer to how many applications you should submit, most students would be wise to apply to six to eight colleges with a range of selectivity, including “matches,” “reaches,” and “safeties.” It is important, however, to be certain that each of the schools within these categories are colleges that you could envision yourself attending if need be.

Preparing your application

Once you’ve found a group of colleges that match your unique set of interests and expectations, you will want to make sure your college applications highlight why you would be a good candidate for admission. It’s your opportunity to “tell your story,” and here’s a hint: everyone has a good story to tell! So how do you convince an admission office of all the great and unique qualities that make you a good match for their college? They will consider a lot of information when assessing which candidates to admit into their class. The key to acceptance at the college of your choice is evidence of strong academic performance throughout high school, so your transcript is the most important piece in telling your story. How challenging is your course load and how did you perform within your chosen classes? Colleges also want to see what you may contribute to the wider campus community, and this is often evidenced by your extracurricular involvement, especially if you have held leadership positions. Most colleges want to see long-term commitments to extracurricular activities. Here, quality is better than quantity.

Colleges want reinforcement of your personality, character, and diligence from those in your school who know you well, so be prepared to seek out a few teachers to write recommendations on your behalf. Meet with your guidance counselor so he or she can learn the things most important to you. You may also want to include a letter of recommendation from an employer, club advisor, or even from alumni of the college to which you are applying. Be careful, though; having multiple letters of recommendation is not always a good thing. Make sure each letter you submit reveals something different from the others.

The more selective colleges will also require an essay or two. A successful essay will provide the admission committee insight into the student—who you are and what is important to you. Finally, a personal interview is often the best way to tell your story; it’s an opportunity to sell your personality, character, and inquisitive mind.

Finding the right college match is mostly about finding yourself, determining what is most important to you, and identifying colleges that offer what you want. There is a great scene in the movie Dead Poets Society where the teacher, John Keating, cites a stuffy essay that proposes a way to reduce literature to a mathematical formula, whereby a poem’s “greatness” can be plotted on a graph. Keating denounces this as “rubbish” and instructs his students to rip the essay from the book. Searching for your ideal college is a little like this movie scene. Even though one could look at any number of objective criteria in determining a college match, there is no one set formula to guide you. When making the decision on which college to attend, you should ask yourself one final question: will I be happy there? This is probably the most important of all and many students forget to ask it. Can you envision yourself walking around the campus, living in the residence halls, and being actively involved in the community? Often one’s own “gut instinct” is the best predictor of where you will be most happy. Know yourself and trust your instincts and you will find your ideal college—one that will provide you with friendships, experiences, and an education that will last a lifetime.

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