Start Your College Search One Step at a Time

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Beginning the college search can seem overwhelming. How do you know where to start, who to talk to, or what you want in a school?

As a high school junior or senior, it’s especially difficult. You’re probably taking some of the hardest classes you’ve ever taken, are involved in lots of extracurricular activities, and have a couple of leadership positions under your belt. On top of all this, you’ve got homecoming, parents, siblings, prom, a job, driving, dating. . . . It’s not an easy time to make a life-changing decision, that’s for sure.

So how do you begin the college search process? Just slow down and take things one step at a time.

Know yourself

Sit down at your computer or with a piece of paper and just brainstorm about the “University of You.” If you could create your perfect school, what would it be like? Don’t think about any barriers—just write. Think about location, distance from home, size, type of school, majors or programs, social life, extracurricular options, athletic/music/theater opportunities, etc. What is important to you? Also, make a list of what the opposite of “The University of You” would look like. If you have problems getting this started, talk to your parents, friends, and family members about their college experience. Ask them what they liked and what they disliked. Discuss what the important factors were in their college search and decision processes.

Research, research, research

It’s still a lot of work, but this part is more fun than the last time you had to do research for a school paper. Plus, it’s an important step because there are about 4,000 college options in the United States alone! Before your senior year, you want to limit this down to about five: one safety, one reach, and three that you’ll probably get into. There are lots of ways to narrow the list. Start by spending some time on the Web. You can use a lot of free online search engines (the CollegeXpress college search, www.collegeboard.com, and www.petersons.com are just a few). Or just do a search for “Schools with Biomedical Engineering,” or whatever your intended major may be, and see what pops up!

Read your mail

You probably are (or soon will be) getting a lot of mail from colleges and universities—don’t throw it away. On some rainy Saturday when the pile has gotten quite big, make three piles: yes, maybe, and no. Just by looking at the literature, you’ll become aware of all the opportunities you have! Think about visiting some schools in the “yes” pile.

Attend one or two college fairs

If there is a National College Fair in your area, go to it, as there will be a large number of schools represented (www.nacacnet.org). Talk to as many representatives as possible and ask informed questions—these people are experts. Stop at the schools you’ve never heard of before. Gather as much literature as your arms can carry, and have fun shopping.

Colleges come to you

“A representative from So and So University will be at Your High School on such and such a day.” Sound familiar? Go to these information sessions, even if you’ve never heard of the school. It’s a great way to learn about all of your options and establish personal connections with the people who decide whether to admit or deny applicants.

Visit your top schools

The college visit is very important; it’s the best way to determine your fit and feel at a school. Make sure to always schedule a tour and a meeting with an admission counselor. Should your schedule allow, you can also make appointments with professors or coaches, sit in on a class, or even spend the night with a current student. Take advantage of the visit opportunity that will best let you see what it’s like to be a student at “X University.” Don’t be afraid to say that it’s your first college visit. Sometimes that’s the best way to get some helpful hints about what you should say, do, or ask.

The academic side

Now, throughout this process, don’t forget to keep your grades up and keep taking challenging classes. (Yes, these grades still count!) Also, make sure that you’re registering for the ACT and/or SAT. Try taking both during the spring of your junior year. Then, take the one that you did best on again early fall of your senior year. Be mindful of any other required tests that your school might ask for.

The last word

Make a timeline and stick to it. Senior year can be pretty chaotic, with filling out applications as well as all of your normal activities. The summer before your senior year is a great time to visit your top five schools. Take advantage of your junior year by managing your time a little more carefully. Also, realize that there is no such thing as the perfect school. There will be things you like and things you don’t like; you need to find the school that you will be happiest at. Enjoy the process, and just take it one step at a time!

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »

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