College Search Do's and Don'ts

Planning for college means making a ton of decisions. Where will you attend? What will you study? How will you pay for it? What should you really look for in choosing the right school? The answers to these questions may be among the most important in your life.

As you tackle the college search process, some steps are must do's for virtually everyone. At the same time, you'll want to avoid mistakes that can get in the way of a successful college experience.

Do’s

Do start early

The earlier you start thinking about college, the better.

“You really need to begin the process of researching different colleges and universities during the early part of your junior year in high school,” says Mitchell Cordova, Vice President for Student Success and Enrollment Management at Florida Gulf Coast University. “By April or May of that year, you should have a pretty good idea of the top five colleges or universities you’re interested in.”

Some experts recommend beginning even earlier, if possible. David Dollins, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, thinks it’s best to begin college planning late in the sophomore year and get more serious in junior year.

“Having the conversation early on with family, counselors, and teachers is good practice,” he says. Dollins suggests considering factors such as location, academic majors, costs, extra-curricular opportunities, and career and graduate school placement rates. He adds that other early steps include taking the PSAT and PLAN in preparation for the SAT and ACT exams, as well as having conversations with college admission officers.

Do visit schools

In a web-connected world, you can find out all kinds of info about any college online; many even offer virtual tours. But for any school you’re seriously interested in, take the time for an in-person look.

“Visit campuses and talk to students,” says Nicole Salimbene, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Pace University Westchester. “Schools appear differently in person than they do online and in print.”

Related: 10 Things You Should Do on Every College Visit

And if you’re attracted to a specific college, it’s best to visit more than one school, according to David Kuskowski, Director of Admissions at Clemson University.

“Find the one that seems like the best fit and where you believe you’re most likely to be happy and successful,” he says. “It’s also not a bad idea to visit twice, once before application and once after admission, to see a different take on things and to affirm your previous sense of the place.”

Do look for extra features

Basics are fine, but what about the extras? All colleges and universities offer a variety of programs and services, but you won’t find the exact same opportunities from one school to the next. Consider your own specific interests in comparing options.  

“Explore special opportunities that can enhance your experience,” says Keith Southergill, Ddirector of Aadmissions at Barrett, the Hhonors Ccollege at Arizona State University. These might include an honors college or program that offers smaller classes, a unique living community, or additional resources for students such as study abroad and opportunities for research and thesis work.

Do gather plenty of info

News flash: colleges need students! Just like a business striving to attract customers, every postsecondary school provides plenty of info for prospective students. Take advantage of all the free information available.

“A great way to start is to get your name on mailing lists,” says Elizabeth Sullivan, Associate Vice President of Enrollment and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Saint Peter’s University. All you need to do is call or email any college and ask for information.

“Spring and summer are the perfect times to get on the mailing lists of different colleges you may be interested in,” she says. “The brochures and materials you receive may inspire you to start your college wish list.”

Sullivan says a fun way to approach this is to make a game out of it with some low-key competition among your group of friends. “Create a list of things to search for and see who completes the list first,” she says. Whether you cooperate with friends or work on your own, a review of any school’s website will provide a wealth of details about academic programs, services for students, tuition rates, and much more.

Along with information provided by the schools themselves, printed directories available in libraries and bookstores can also be helpful. Examples include the Complete Book of Colleges from the Princeton Review, College Handbook 2018 from the College Board, and Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges 2018.

Do trust your feelings

Like your grandma said, it’s always wise to consult others. But before committing to any school, make sure it feels like a good fit for you.

"As you approach the college search, extend beyond your comfort zone and don’t settle if it doesn’t feel right,” says Ross R. Grippi II, Director of Admission at Ohio Wesleyan University. "Find an exceptional fit for your college experience."

This means focusing less on the look of a campus, for example, and more on the people you’ll be encountering.

Related: Stuck on Choosing a College? Consider These 5 Things

“Search beyond the shiny buildings, immaculate grounds, and pretty backdrops to really explore those you’ll collaborate with on a daily basis,” Grippi says. "The faculty, staff, and current students will make or break your experience, not your mom, dad, best friend, or historical-ranking entity.”

Don’ts

Don’t apply to just one school

Talk about choices! The nation has over 4,700 two- and four-year colleges, according to the US Department of Education. Given the diversity of their offerings, you may be shorting yourself in focusing on just one school. By applying to more than one college or university, you’ll have more features to compare.

“Find colleges that have the majors you’re interested in, are located in the geographic areas you want to be, and which match your academic profile,” Pace’s Salimbene says.

At the same time, by applying to multiple schools you’ll be prepared if you’re not accepted at your first choice. Even if you’ve done very well in high school, you could be disappointed in a highly competitive admission situation. Salimbene advises including a “safety” school, where you’re sure to be admitted.

Don't choose based only on a specific major 

If you’ve already identified your college major, it can be tempting to rule out schools that aren’t especially well known for that academic area. But be sure to consider other factors as well. Not only may other strong points be worth considering, but there’s always the chance that you’ll switch to another field.

"More than 50% of students will change their major once or twice in their college journey, and that is absolutely alright," says David M. Ward, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UNC Pembroke. "College is an opportunity to learn new things and have new experiences. Think about a number of subjects you may like and choose a college that offers a variety of options for you to pursue."

Related: How Your Potential Major Can Influence Your College Search

Of course, for some students who have definite career plans, it may be important to consider a school's reputation in a given field. But even if you're focused on, say Engineering, you wouldn’t want to attend a college that has great Engineering programs but isn’t a good match for your other interests.

Don’t rely on too much on the opinions of others

Every year, the media trumpet new lists of the “best” colleges and the “top” programs in various fields. Such lists make interesting reads, but don’t pay too much attention to them. The same goes for informal evaluations offered by friends, family, and acquaintances.

“Try not to search only schools that are based on your classmates’ ‘hot list’ or just because they are on some ranking list,” says St. Peter’s Sullivan. She says if you’ve found a school you like but it’s not considered popular, don’t worry about what other students think.

“Explore the school,” Sullivan says. “You may discover it has exactly what is right for you. And who knows, it could become the next popular destination.”

Related: Why Independence Matters in Your College Search

Don’t assume you can’t afford it

It’s a no-brainer that college is expensive. But assuming you can’t afford to attend could be one of the biggest mistakes you’ll ever make. Every college offers plenty of financial aid to students who need assistance. Local, state, and national organizations also sponsor scholarships and other awards.

“Many times, students and families see the listed tuition and associated fees and can be scared away,” Clarion’s Dollins says. “However, most qualify for some sort of merit and/or need-based aid. Rarely is it that families find themselves paying the actual listed costs.”

To find out more, Dollins suggests meeting with a financial aid counselor anytime you make a college visit. He also encourages completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even if you believe you might not qualify, the information may be used by other providers of scholarships or grants you could be eligible for.

If family finances present a challenge, be sure to apply to at least one college that charges relatively low tuition. And don’t rule out off-campus living, says Peter Burns, Vice President for Enrollment at Manhattanville College.

“The cost of room and board at most colleges will be approximately $10,000–$15,000 a year,” he says. “Do not live on campus if you think you will go home most weekends.”

Related: 6 Genius Ways to Make Your College Education More Affordable

In searching for funding, check first with the schools you’re interested to see what’s available. For most students, comparing yearly costs (total annual costs minus scholarships, grants, and other aid) will be a key step in determining where to enroll.

It’s also smart to apply for other aid. You can find extensive lists of funding sources at scholarship search sites such as Fastweb and in printed directories such as Scholarship Handbook 2018 from The College Board and Paying for College Without Going Broke from The Princeton Review.

Don’t freak out

Choosing a college can be a stressful experience. But it doesn’t have to be, says Gil J. Villanueva, Associate Vice President and Dean of Admission at the University of Richmond.

“It’s a process that, when done right, will be much less complex and more enjoyable for you,” he says. “Remember that your college search process is for you and about you. Take control and by doing so, you might even enjoy it.”

Sullivan says if you realize there’s a college or university for everyone, you can make the search process less overwhelming.

“Remember to take deep breaths, and have some fun with the search,” she says. “If you take the time to explore, ask questions, meet people, and do some research, you will find the right place for you.”

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