Last Updated: Apr 29, 2020
Choosing a college is a big decision—probably one of the biggest you'll ever make. It can be overwhelming and hard to know where to start. Luckily, these tactics can help you ease into the process. Then, before you know it, you’ll be diving into all those college details, and you’ll have a big, beautiful college search spreadsheet. But until then, let’s take things nice and easy, because as Lao Tzu once said, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
It helps to begin with a little self-assessment. Jot down some notes of things you might want in a college. This usually starts with academics. But that doesn’t mean you need to know what your major will be right now (or even after you enroll in college, to be honest). If you’re having trouble narrowing down your major/college academic options, start talking to professionals in your or your parents' network about their careers and where they went to college. This can help jump-start your interest in a few colleges and get you online to do some research.
If you're not sure what you want to study and don't have much of a professional network to call on, there are other factors to consider when starting your college research. Things like how far do you want to go from home, the cost, and the size of the school are all important considerations. What's important to you? Once you have some answers to these questions, you’ll be much more focused as you begin researching colleges. Here are five easy ways to get started!
1. Go to college fairs and talk to college reps
College fairs are a great help in the college search process for a number of reasons: You can learn more about schools you may not have known much about or considered before. You can pick up all the brochures you'd like. And best of all, you can speak directly with a school representative, who is there specifically to talk to potential students and share their knowledge about the campus. Admission reps also visit high schools, usually in the fall, for the same purpose. Ask your school counselor about what colleges will be visiting your school and sign up for their presentations. They welcome questions and will be glad to speak with you. It’s also totally okay to approach them afterward if you're on the shy side and don't want to ask questions during their talk.
2. Read those old-school brochures
As great as the Internet is, there's still something exciting about getting a big envelope of “stuff” in the mail. (Someone in the admission office will likely contact you via phone, text, or e-mail a few weeks after the materials arrive to answer any other questions you may have too.) Colleges generate a tremendous amount of marketing material—glossy campus brochures, program-specific pamphlets, financial aid information, and more—meant for potential students starting their college search just like you. Instead of throwing them out immediately, let them jump-start your imagination. Read through the information inside and gauge your gut reaction. You might end up adding the college to your list of schools to research further. Just remember that these materials depict the “perfect” version of the school, so you’ll need to do real research (and probably visit campus) to get the whole story.
3. Visit college websites and social media pages
Official college websites can be a great introduction to the schools on your list. They can give you a glimpse at what a college values by looking at campus news, events, and overview pages. And they can answer most of your initial questions, like what’s the average GPA/test scores for admitted students or what extracurricular activities are available. (You can use college websites to do in-depth research later too; for example, you might take a closer look at course catalogues or professor profiles.) Once you've browsed the websites, you might also want to download any apps the school has and see what other information is available.
And then there’s social media. Just about every college and university has some sort of presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or others. These social media pages can give you a general sense of the school’s “vibe,” as well as a taste of day-to-day life on campus, which is always helpful when you’re just beginning your college search. You might see how current students interact with the school too.
4. Talk with current students and alumni
Besides social media, one of the best ways to get an honest opinion of a particular college or university is to speak with a current student or an alumnus. People love sharing stories about their college days—and they truly love helping students who are just starting the college search. Admissions reps are helpful, but they can't give you a completely unbiased opinion of the campus the way a student or alumnus can.
Tap into your network and talk to folks about their alma maters; this includes your parents and older siblings, other relatives, teachers, friends, and maybe even friends of friends. Ask them what they wish they had known when they were your age. Pay attention to what they say about professors, campus life, and anything else they're willing to share.
5. Go on campus visits
The best way to research any college is to visit the campus. This allows you a firsthand look at the dorms, dining hall, classrooms, and other buildings. Visiting the campus is the best way to determine if you truly feel at home there. For example, Will you be comfortable in the dorms? Do they have activities that you'll be interested in? How is the distance from home? And most importantly—is this a place where you feel you can excel and meet the goals you hope to accomplish over the next four years (or beyond, if you choose to attend graduate school)? You should also take advantage of asking the tour guide (who is usually a student) your unique questions; here are some helpful campus visit question examples. Visit as many schools as you can and start as early in your college search as possible. That way, by the time many of your friends are just starting their search, you'll be applying to the colleges and universities of your choice.
Related: Your College Search Timeline
The college search isn’t the same for everyone. And while these are just a few good ways to get started, your search will take you on your own journey in which you’ll find methods of exploring colleges that work best for you. Use these suggestions to guide you in your first steps, and then let your research take you where it may. Good luck!
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