This is it. This is how you find the perfect college—or colleges—for you. We created this free ultimate guide to the college search because we know finding a school that fits you—truly fits you—is the secret to college success. When you find the right college match, everything else tends to fall into place: your chances of being accepted, your financial aid, your happiness.
Read through this guide. Follow the steps. And you will find colleges that fit you and your budget. Promise.
Here’s what this college search guide covers:
- How to think about your college search
- When to start your college search
- How to start your college search
- What to look for in your colleges
- Where to find and research colleges
- Campus visits in your college search
- How to make your college list
- Deciding where to apply
So keep reading for a step-by-step walk through the entire college search process. Follow this path, and you’ll be sending in your admission deposit before you know it.
How to think about your college search
Are you convinced—and terrified—that you need to somehow find the single perfect college for you from the more than 4,700 two- and four-year colleges and universities in the United States? You’re definitely not alone in thinking that way. But you can relax (a little bit), because here's the truth: there are probably many colleges where you will be happy and successful. And finding them isn’t as hard as it seems. (Especially if you use this guide!)
Of course, if you're like most high school students going through the college search, you want to get into the best school for you. But too often "best" means "most selective" instead of a place where you'll really thrive academically and socially.
Finding colleges that fit you may mean rejecting conventional wisdom of what is a “good” school or a popular school or a validating school. It may mean disregarding things such as whether or not your parents went there, if it’s an Ivy League school, if it’s a state school, etc. It also helps if you can set aside any financial concerns or affordability judgments for a moment (we'll get to that). Instead, try to get a feel for the college's personality and how it meshes with who you are and what you want.
Finding the right college for you takes a little introspection—and a whole lot of research. But that begs the question…
What makes a college “right for you," anyway?
First things first: there is almost certainly more than one “right” college for you. Some might be reach schools, some might be safeties. In any case, when you’re searching for colleges, try to remember what college should be. It's a place where:
- You're comfortable being yourself—but also challenged to be better.
- You find people to talk with late into the night—whether it’s because you totally agree with each other or you’re debating something you care about.
- You have opportunities to study things that fascinate you, play the sports you want to play, work at internships that help clarify your career plans, and join the clubs you want to join—and you are expected to take advantage of those opportunities, because they won’t just fall in your lap.
- You learn how to learn, communicate well, and solve problems—skills all employers want to see, no matter what industry.
- And you can get this kind of education without breaking the bank and taking on crazy amounts of student debt.
Speaking of college costs, here’s the dirty little secret: because there are so many schools out there and a variety of financial aid to be had, you can almost always find a college that meets your needs and your budget.
Always remember your future success is largely determined by you, not your college. College is what you make of it. So you can go to any number of the thousands of colleges and universities in the United States and graduate ready for whatever the real world throws at you. Otherwise, borrowing lots of money to attend a “name-brand” school isn’t really necessary—or worth it.
It’s also important to define what the right college match for you is not. It’s not just the school with the lowest acceptance rate. It’s not the one with the “it costs more so it must be better” highest tuition, that’s for sure. And it’s not just because it’s on one of those “best college” rankings lists.
Even if you've dreamed of going to a certain college your whole life, not checking out your other options is a mistake. Finding your perfect college match(es) takes time and effort, but it's worth it in the end
When to start your college search
Not sure when to begin your college search—or what you should be doing? Don’t worry; we’re going to walk you through it, step by step, year by year.
Your high school years
Real talk: the best preparation for your college search is to do your best academic work throughout high school and take advantage of activities that are meaningful to you. This starts basically Day 1 of freshman year.
However! If you’re a junior or a senior, don’t worry if your high school résumé isn't perfect. And if you’re a freshman or sophomore, don’t go thinking the whole point of high school is getting into college. Your high school years are an important part of your intellectual and personal development, and spending too much time focused on college minimizes how much you get out of them.
Regardless of what year you are—freshman, sophomore, junior, or even senior—you can make the most of high school by doing the following:
- Take the most challenging high school classes you can. College admission officers would rather see you take tough classes than have a perfect GPA in intro courses.
- Work hard and do as well as you can in those classes. Your future self will be so grateful for a decent GPA.
- Get involved in extracurricular activities you truly care about. Stick with them too, because when it comes to high school activities, quality is better than quantity.
- Keep a simple record of your activities and accomplishments, what you did and when, so they’re easy to remember when you need them for college or even scholarship applications.
- Be aware of the subjects and hobbies that make you happiest. Maybe they have the potential to be a college major or career someday!
- Look for part-time jobs, volunteer positions, and internships in areas that interest you.
- Think about where your college funds are coming from. Sit down with your family to see what they have planned, and start saving your own hard-earned cash and looking for college scholarships that fit you.
Besides doing your best throughout high school, your college search will primarily unfold over your junior and senior years.
You should start digging into your college search junior year. It’s the perfect time to, well, follow the rest of the steps in this guide.
Many high school students wait until spring semester to start searching for colleges, and plenty of students push their college search into fall of senior year. But keep in mind that there’s little to lose by starting earlier. Also, the longer you wait, the less time you have to complete a thorough college search, which can impact the quality of your research, lead to missed deadlines, and maybe even postpone your entrance into college.
Here’s what your junior year might look like when it comes to the college search:
- Do some preliminary college search prep. (Using this guide is a great place to start.)
- Take the PSAT; check “yes” for Student Search Service if you want to hear from colleges.
- Create a file and spreadsheet to manage your college research, testing, and application information. (We created a sample spreadsheet you can use!)
- Prepare for standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests by taking practice tests and discussing the exams with your professors.
Spring semester (and into summer)
- Meet with your high school counselor to discuss your college plans.
- Attend college fairs, if possible.
- Actually search for colleges that meet your criteria (keep reading for tips on what to look for).
- Visit as many colleges that interest you as you can.
- Create or update a record of your accomplishments, involvements, and work experiences over the past three years.
- Choose strong courses when registering for senior year classes. Consider IB and AP courses, if available (eligible scores on the related tests might mean college credit—which can save you time and money).
- Ask potential recommendation writers if they'll write a letter for you (especially anyone who will be getting a lot of requests, like coaches).
- Register for all applicable standardized tests if you have not done so already, and continue to prepare for them.
- Start exploring financial aid possibilities and looking for college scholarships.
- Stay involved by working to help pay for college, attending a summer program, or getting an internship.
- Start thinking about your college application essays. Pick a topic and write a practice essay.
Fall of senior year is college application GO TIME. That’s when you will make your final college list and send in your applications, because most college application deadlines are between early November and January. Also remember that colleges expect you to maintain a challenging schedule and earn strong grades until you graduate from high school. Even if you are admitted Early Action or Early Decision to your perfect college match, admission counselors will still check mid-year and final grades.
Here’s what your senior year might look like when it comes to the college search and application process:
- Meet with your high school counselor to share what you accomplished over the summer, discuss college application next steps, and review your transcript.
- Request recommendations or follow up with people you talked to in the spring.
- Complete the FAFSA online ASAP after October 1—the sooner, the better.
- Make sure you have taken all necessary standardized tests well before your college application deadlines.
- Narrow down your colleges to your final list. Be sure to include “safety” schools as well as “reach” and “realistic/match” options (more on that below).
- Download and fill out your university applications. Keep track of all deadlines!
- Ask college financial aid offices about all financial aid forms you need to complete. Keep track of those deadlines too!
- Visit any colleges on your list you haven’t seen yet, if you possibly can.
- Write (or finish) your application essays. Ask a teacher (or two) to read them.
- Send in college applications as needed by the given deadline. Pay special attention if you're applying Early Decision and Early Action; those applications are usually due in early to mid-November
- Thank anyone who wrote a recommendation letter for you.
- Continue sending in applications with later deadlines or rolling admission policies. (Most Regular Decision applications should be finished by February.)
- Throughout the semester, do not slack off (aka “ senioritis”)!
- Continue searching for scholarships.
- By April, admission decisions will begin to arrive, so review your college acceptances and compare your financial aid packages. If you have questions, talk with college financial aid counselors.
- Notify the college you choose of your decision to attend and send a deposit by the May 1 deadline. You should also notify the colleges you did not choose, so they can offer admission to others.
- Tell your high school counselor and registrar what college you have selected so they can send your final transcript.
- Your College Search Timeline
- College Planning Timeline for High School Students
- Standardized Test Timeline for High School Students: What to Take and When?
- The 5 Types of College Application Deadlines
- Early Decision, Early Action, Single Choice Early Action—what's the right one for me?
- How to Survive College Application Season
How to start your college search
So now you know when to start your college search, but do you know how?! Before you jump on to any of those online college search tools, you need to do a few things first.
Every college search should start with the same basic activity: sitting down with your computer or a piece of paper and brainstorming.
If you could create your perfect college, what would it be like? What's important to you? Don’t worry about any obstacles—just write. Think about location, distance from home, size, type of school, majors or other academic programs, social life, extracurricular options, athletic/music/theater opportunities, etc. (We cover this in detail in the next section.) If you have problems getting started, talk to your parents, friends, and family about their college search experience. Ask them what they liked and disliked about their college and what their deciding factors were.
You also need to ask yourself some tough questions: Are you shy or outgoing? Do you like to play it safe or take calculated risks? What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses? 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? In short, who are you?
These are hard questions, but they are vital for finding the best-fit college for you. But it's not just so you can find similar colleges. In fact, you may be better off looking for schools that are the exact opposite, because they can challenge you and help you grow more. In the meantime...
Attend one or two college fairs
College fairs are often high school students' first taste of the college admission experience. They’re big, loud, exciting, and overwhelming—but they’re a great way to dive into the college search process.
If there is a National College Fair in your area, go to it, because there will be lots of schools there. (You'll find a list of college fairs here.) Talk to as many college representatives as possible and ask informed questions. Stop at the schools you’ve never heard of before. Gather as much literature (and swag!) as your arms can carry, and have fun “shopping” for a college.
Let 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 college or university. 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 a starter college
Campus visits are an incredibly important part of your college search (we cover them in more detail later in this guide). However, if you’re just starting and aren’t quite sure what you’re looking for in a college, spend an hour or two walking around the closest campus—even if you’re certain it’s not the right college for you. It can get your imagination going and help you gather your thoughts.
Read your mail
You probably are (or soon will be) getting a lot of mail from colleges and universities. Don’t just throw it away. On some rainy Saturday when the pile has gotten quite big, make three piles: yes, maybe, and no. It's nice to see all the opportunities you have! Think about visiting some schools in the “yes” pile.
What to look for in your colleges
Finding your college match boils down to one question: does this college have what you’re looking for?
As you can imagine, there are a lot of factors to consider when researching colleges. And every student's needs and wants will be different. However, the categories below apply to just about everyone. They’re extensive, but this is how you find best college match for you and make the most informed college choice possible.
Also remember: when the college match is clearly right on your end, the admission committee may be better able to see you as their kind of student too—and they may be more likely to admit you. And perhaps offer a more competitive financial aid package.
Here are the general college search criteria categories (keep in mind you can easily ignore things that don't apply to you and add other criteria that are important):
- Academics and majors
- Cost, financial aid, and affordability
- Location and distance from home
- Campus community and social life
- Athletics and other extracurriculars
- Career services and other support
- Public or private?
Academics and majors
You are enrolling in college to eventually get a degree, so it’s probably not surprising that academics are one of the most important parts of your college search. But if you don’t know what you want to study, there’s no reason to freak out! Lots of students enter college undecided. In fact, many institutions want you to spend the first year or two exploring your academic options—and there’s a good chance you’ll change your major anyway.
Instead of focusing on schools that have the major you want (or think you want), consider college academics in a broader way. Look for schools that have a good representation of your interests, making it easier for you to choose or change your major later on. (If you’re truly unsure, you should avoid small, specialized colleges; that way you won’t limit your future academic decisions to a small selection of programs.)
Also think about the college’s academic "personality" and how it meshes with what you want: Are you looking for a research-driven institution? Small discussion-based classes? A thriving arts scene? All of the above?
A good way to narrow down your academic interests is to think about which classes and activities you enjoy most. Focus on the subjects you’re passionate about, but also think about your least favorite classes and activities. Determining which subjects you love (or hate) can eliminate some colleges right off the bat.
Another strategy is to consider your end career goal and work backwards. What is your dream job? Find out who some of the top professionals are in that field and find out where they went to school and what they studied.
In addition to majors, you should ask about opportunities for research, internships, and mentoring, which can be hugely influential and helpful (not to mention give you a significant leg up in your job search). It’s also a good idea to check out the campus facilities; are the labs, art studios, and other academic resources up-to-date and well-equipped? Experience with the latest technology will always serve you well.
Questions to ask
- Does the college have the major(s) I’m considering as well as several good backups in case I change my mind?
- What is the academic reputation of the college? What about the reputation of my major(s) in particular?
- What are the professors like? What are they known for, and what have they accomplished?
- What is the “on-time,” four-year (or six-year) graduation rate?
- What is the freshman-to-sophomore retention rate?
- What is the average class size for introductory courses? For advanced courses?
- What is the student-faculty ratio overall and in my potential major(s)?
- What kind of accreditation does the school hold? What about my possible major(s)?
- What are the academic facilities, libraries, and labs like?
- What kind of research opportunities—not just in the sciences—exist on campus?
- Does the school have an honors college?
- Can I study abroad?
- What kinds of writing support or other tutoring programs does the school have?
Cost, financial aid, and affordability
It can be a big mistake to start your college search by excluding certain schools because they have an expensive price tag (or to assume you cannot afford to go to college at all). Of course, for most students and their families, college affordability will weigh heavily on their decision-making process.
However, the initial “sticker price” you see (tuition, fees, room, board, books, etc.) will seldom be the final price you pay. Most colleges and universities realize they need to help students afford their education. And financial aid changes everything. In fact, you might find the pricey school that seemed out of reach is actually your most affordable option once you get their financial aid award letter.
College students get financial support through a wide range of sources, such as academic scholarships, special ability awards (for musical talents, athletics, leadership), diversity grants (multicultural, ethnic background), or on-campus employment (work-study). Students also get money based on the results of their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and/or the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (College Scholarship Service by the College Board).
Also, pay attention to the freshman-to-sophomore retention rate and the four-year graduation rate in your college cost research, because they often signify a school’s true value. For example, a "cheaper" school may be less of a bargain if a low percentage of students actually graduate in four years. And a more expensive school with a higher four-year graduation rate may actually be the better value.
On your college search spreadsheet, list financial stats like tuition and other costs for all your schools, along with the average financial aid package (you can update the spreadsheet with your actual financial aid award after you get your acceptance and financial aid letters). That way you'll have lots of data points to look at when making your final college choice. A choice you and your family can afford.
Questions to ask
- What percentage of students receives financial aid, and how much on average?
- What percentage of students graduates with debt, and how much on average?
- Does financial aid include loans?
- Is the school need-blind or need-aware in admission?
- How many years does it typically take students to graduate (because each year is another year of tuition, plus financial aid and scholarships might not extend beyond four years)?
- What kinds of college scholarships are available to students (awarded by academic achievement, through college departments, etc.)?
- What kinds of work-study opportunities are there?
Location and distance from home
Your college experience hardly stops at the edge of campus.
What type of college location is best for you? In a big city, you’ll have access to exciting activities, from concerts, theater, and art exhibits to shopping and nightlife. However, if you prefer starry nights to city lights, you might be happier at a more rural school. Looking for the best of both worlds? Consider a suburban school with easy access to the city.
Maybe you want to go far away, or maybe you want (or need) to stay close to home. Whatever your preferences, make sure they’re part of your college search!
Questions to ask
- Do I want to attend college in a rural, suburban, or urban area?
- Do I want to be far away and on my own or close enough to travel home on the weekends?
- What is the weather typically like during the academic year?
- What kinds of recreational opportunities and amenities (like grocery stores) are in the area?
- What is the transportation system for students who don’t have a car on campus?
- What is the crime rate typically like in the area?
- What are the area’s employment opportunities like for students looking for internships and part-time jobs as well as recent grads looking for full-time positions?
- How big is the school’s campus in terms of acreage (an important consideration if your classes and/or dorm are far apart!)?
- Can I live off campus? Or if I want to stay on campus, is housing available all four years?
- What is the “town-gown” relationship like between the college and surrounding community?
- What is the average cost of living and general quality of life?
Campus community and social life
In addition to nailing down a general location, it’s important to consider the type of campus “vibe” you want. Are you seeking an intense research university? What about a school with bleed-the-school-colors spirit? (Or maybe spirit fingers aren’t really your style?) Do you want to attend an institution affiliated with a religion or with a strong commitment to athletics, Greek life, or the arts?
The campus atmosphere will likely be an important part of your happiness at school—and that can have a profound impact on your overall college experience. Happy students are more likely to graduate, so spend some time thinking about what makes you happy, and look for colleges with opportunities that match.
Questions to ask
- What is the social scene like on campus?
- How do students spend their free time on campus and off?
- What are the students generally like (in reality, not just stereotypes!)?
- How many students live on campus full time?
- How many stay on campus during the weekends?
- How many are on campus during breaks?
- What kinds of fun things are available to students through the school and in the community?
- How friendly and welcoming do the students and staff seem?
Athletics and other extracurriculars
A lot of your time in college will be spent in activities outside the classroom—as it should be!
College extracurriculars span virtually every interest you can imagine, from academic clubs to cultural groups to theater troupes to intramural sports. Campus clubs can also help you figure out what major is right for you or if you’re on the right career track. And they can help you develop all kinds of useful skills, from teamwork to creative problem solving (among other things employers like to see).
If you’re serious about sports, athletics can also add a whole new dimension to your college search too. Student-athletes should start by realistically assessing their abilities and considering which schools are most likely to give them a team jersey. Talk to the coaches at your high school and at the colleges you’re interested in and ask them to evaluate your chances of being formally recruited for your sport.
Questions to ask
- Does the college offer what I’m looking for when I’m not in class?
- What kinds of extracurricular opportunities exist on campus in art, music, theater, community service, athletics, etc.?
- How many students participate in extracurriculars?
- Are there clubs or pre-professional associations related to my major(s) or intended career?
- Can students start their own clubs? How easy is it to do?
- What is the athletic recruitment process like?
- What athletic conference and division is the school?
Big university, small college, or something in between: what’s the right type of college for you?
Big schools offer a wide variety of classes and majors, but they can also be a bit daunting and professors may be less accessible. A smaller student body generally means a lower student-faculty ratio, but course offerings and activities may be more limited. However, keep in mind that you can totally find your niche at any large university. And who cares if a small school doesn't offer a bajillion academic and extracurricular offerings as long as they have a handful that matter to you? Reason #278945 you should keep an open mind in your college search!
Think about your current high school. If you attend a small school with kids you’ve known forever, do you find it comforting or boring? On the other hand, if you go to a big urban or suburban high school, do you enjoy the hustle and bustle, or do you feel overwhelmed?
Some students thrive in colleges that offer small, discussion-based classes where students and professors are on a first-name basis; others prefer large lecture halls where they can soak up the basics and then go to study on their own. To find a college that matches your learning style, ask about average class sizes, especially for the subjects you’re most interested in. Find out as much as you can about how classes are structured all four years and how the size of the college or university might factor into your overall experience.
Questions to ask
- What is the overall student body population and in the academic programs that interest me?
- What is the overall average class size and in the academic programs that interest me?
- What is the overall student-faculty ratio and in the academic programs that interest me?
- Are most courses taught through lectures, or are there opportunities for interaction and discussion?
Highly selective colleges get a lot of attention for their single-digit admit rates, but here is the great news about college admission: the vast majority of colleges and universities accept well over 50% of their applicants, and they offer high-quality academic and extracurricular experiences. The odds are very much in your favor in identifying a handful of schools that are likely to admit you.
You should also seek out colleges all along the "safety," "reach," and "match" spectrum for you. We discuss this in more detail in the "How to make your college list" section, but, basically, this means doing some research on how your grade point average, standardized test scores, and high school curriculum (IB, AP, honors, etc.) measure up against the “average” incoming first-year student at your colleges.
If you conduct the kind of thorough college search outlined in this guide, it's quite possible—likely, in fact—that you'll find schools that fit you across the selectivity spectrum. And, of course, you want to give yourself some reasonable options when you eventually apply (that's why you pick "safety," "reach," and "match" schools, after all). But just keep in mind: a college' selectivity doesn't decide your fate. Only you can do that.
Questions to ask
- What is the average admitted student’s academic profile like, and how does it compare to mine?
- Does the school take a holistic approach to admission decisions?
- What are admission rates for students applying Early Action or Early Decision verses Regular Decision?
- What are springtime and transfer admission rates like?
- What are "legacy" admission rates like?
Career services and other campus support
For many students, college success means tutoring. Others might need counseling for dealing with homesickness or other emotional issues. And most college students need at least some guidance as they conduct their first internship and job searches.
That’s why colleges and universities have ample resources to support you throughout your time on campus—and often long after you graduate.
Questions to ask
- How will the school help me determine and achieve my career goals?
- What is their postgraduate job placement rate like (in positions related to students' degrees)?
- What does the career services office offer?
- What kinds of experiential education opportunities, such as internships, co-ops, and volunteering, exist on and around campus?
- What academic services are available, such as tutoring?
- What health and wellness services are available, such as mental health counseling and fitness facilities?
- Are any of these services available after graduation?
Public or private?
A lot of students think they need to pick right away whether they will go to a public or private college. And that will certainly slash your options significantly if you focus your college search on just one or the other. But the thing is, you may find there are more similarities between public and private colleges than there are differences.
Obviously, a big consideration is cost, and it’s true that public state schools usually charge less for tuition than private schools, especially for in-state residents. But private colleges often offer more financial aid, which might offset the difference in cost.
Then there's school size. While state universities have a reputation for larger student bodies, classes, and student-faculty ratios, don’t base your college search decisions on this generalization. Many public schools offer a personal, student-centered environment that’s comparable to smaller private colleges. You can find public colleges with tight-knit liberal arts programs and private schools with huge, rambunctious athletic programs.
So in the interest of finding the best fit college for you, you may want to keep your options open (at least at first). You might be surprised by what you find.
- How to Choose Your Major (or Not)
- Affordability and the Cost of College: More Than Financial Aid
- Exploring Extracurricular Activities in College
- A Day in the Life of a College Student
- Comparing Public Colleges: Big vs. Small Schools
Where to find and research colleges
After going through the college search criteria above, you can start looking for the best schools for you. Yup, it's finally time to fire up those college search tools! And there are tons of other resources you should use to find out more about the schools on your list.
Try to be open-minded as you research colleges. Be cautious about adding schools just because they are considered “prestigious.” Conversely, be open to colleges you may not be familiar with. You never know what you’ll find until you really dive into your college search.
Keep all of your college research together, and add your criteria and key data points for each college to your spreadsheet. You will also start to accumulate notes from campus visits, talks with counselors and admission reps, brainstorming activities, etc. (Pro tip: don’t get rid of any of your college search notes—even after you eliminate schools. You never know if you’ll need your college research again, whether you give it to a younger sibling or use it as a transfer student.)
Finally, remember: finding colleges that meet your search criteria is just the tip of the iceberg. Just because a school has your favorite major doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right college fit for you. You should get to know your potential colleges—and if it's truly the right choice for you.
College search tools and websites
When searching for colleges online, use the college search criteria you developed when you were brainstorming and answering the questions in this guide. Try to be as specific as possible in your search too (for example, "urban liberal arts colleges Catholic" or "large research institutions with biology majors in the Northeast").
Here are our favorite online college search tools:
- CollegeXpress (obviously!)
- Big Future by the College Board
- My College Options
- The Princeton Review
Student review and testimonial sites
Review websites, just like Yelp, exist for higher education too, and they can be a great way to get to know your potential colleges a little better. That being said, they can also be a hotbed for stressed-out and misinformed students (and parents), so take what you read with a grain of salt. Use multiple review sites and look for patterns to get a sense of what life is really like at a college—beyond what they tell you in a picture-perfect brochure or on an official campus visit.
Individual college websites
Once you have a reasonable list of colleges, check out their individual websites. First impressions are important!
College websites typically provide basic information (i.e., academic majors, profile of the student body, admission requirements, and more). So if you can’t find most of the college search criteria you’re looking for, move on.
But if they do meet a lot of your criteria, you can use college websites to get a (relatively) inside look at what’s happening on campus. Turn to media/press, alumni, and student services webpages to read up on the latest faculty accolades, program highlights, fast facts, featured alumni, past and future events, and more.
This will give you a sense of the school's values, culture, and definition of success. Then ask yourself: do their values align with yours?
Guidebooks and magazines
Publications like Peterson’s The Insider’s Guide to Colleges, The Fiske Guide, Colleges That Change Lives, Private Colleges & Universities, and The Princeton Review are all great places to explore colleges and conduct college research. Here are some of the college search guidebooks we recommend:
- Admission Matters by Sally P. Springer and Marion R. Franck
- America's Best Colleges for B Students by Tamara B. Orr
- Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth About America's Top Schools by John Zmirak
- College Admissions for the Other 95%: A Guide to the School Counseling Office (from a Director of School Counseling) by Lawrence M. Rich
- College Admissions Data Sourcebooks by Wintergreen Orchard House
- College Match by Steven R. Antonoff and Marie A. Friedemann
- Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope
- Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different by Donald Ash
- Creative Colleges: A Guide for Student Actors, Artists, Dancers, Musicians, and Writers by Elaina Loveland
- Harvard Schmarvard by Jay Mathews
- K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities by The Princeton Review
- Peterson's College Guide for Performing Arts Majors by Carole J. Everett
- Profiles of American Colleges by Barron's
- Rugg's Recommendations on the Colleges by Frederick E. Rugg
- Students' Guide to Colleges: The Definitive Guide to America's Top 100 Schools Written by the Real Experts: The Students Who Attend Them by Jordan Goldman and Colleen Buyers
- The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students by Shane L. Windmeyer
- The Big Book of Colleges by College Prowler
- The College Finder by Steven Antonoff (This book is also the basis for almost all of our awesome college lists!)
- The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg
- The Insiders' Guide to the Colleges by the staff of the Yale Daily News
- The National Directory of College Athletics by Collegiate Directories, Inc.
Guidance/professional school counselors
Your high school counselor (or maybe even a private college counselor) can be an invaluable resource in your college search, with everything from giving you a heads up about college fairs to recommending specific colleges and scholarships based on what they know about you. In any case, you’ll definitely need their help in sending your official transcripts and perhaps writing a recommendation letter. So try to develop a relationship with them as early as you can.
However, you may find your high school counselor has a full caseload (sometimes with hundreds of students). Do what you can to maintain a connection with your counselor and advocate for yourself, but also help them help you by doing as much research on your own as you can (like using this college search guide!).
You can also look for college search help through your high school or community, like info sessions after school or at your local library.
Today, many colleges and universities offer virtual tours on their website so you can “walk the campus” while sitting at home. There are also independent sites (such as eCampusTours, YouVisit, and YOUniversityTV) that let students to tour multiple schools from all corners of the country.
Perhaps best of all, these resources are free! No buying a plane ticket, no staying at a hotel—you don’t even need to pay for the gallon of gas it would cost to drive across town. Is the experience the same as visiting in person? Not by a long shot. But virtual campus visits are a great introduction to a school, and later on they can help jog your memory of what a school was like without going all the way back to campus. (You'll find more tips on visiting campuses below!)
A college's social media posts can provide quick but effective insights into its benefits and culture. So follow your potential colleges’ complete social media networks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, etc.
Schools might tweet to prospective students or post YouTube videos ranging from serious admission advice to viral videos shot on campus. Social media can also help you to explore the public face of a college (through official pages) as well as the "shadow" face of a school (through unofficial accounts run by students or alumni—sneaky!).
It’s also common to make friends with other students over social media, which means you’ll know a few more faces when you arrive on campus as a freshman.
Family and friends
Throughout your college search process, take some time to ask your parents, family friends, and teachers what they think of your criteria and the schools you're considering. You can also learn a lot from asking older friends and siblings about their college experience.
These trusted individuals may suggest something you never thought of. See if they’re available to chat in person or over e-mail, be respectful of their time, and try to write down specific questions you’d like to ask them in advance.
Campus visits in your college search
Imagine buying a house. You would inevitably do research online. You might even take virtual tours of the homes that appeal to you. But before you sign on the dotted line, you will need to actually walk through the house yourself. You need to step inside to see if it feels like home. And if it's worth the investment.
It’s similar with colleges.
In spite of the depth and breadth of college search tools you have at your disposal, they are no exceptions to visiting campus in person. So, after you have narrowed your college list to a manageable number, it’s time to think about visiting their campuses.
A successful college visit will give you a real sense of what your life might be like if you enrolled there—and whether it matches what you want. Often, you’ll know instinctively how you feel about a campus within moments of setting foot on the quad. If you hate it, note the things that really turn you off, so you know what to look for at the next school.
The best time to visit is typically when classes are in session, the college is alive with students, faculty are accessible, and the campus is buzzing with activity. Of course, for many students and their families, summer is a much more convenient time. That's okay too. Maybe you can make some campus stops on your way to the beach, amusement park, or family reunion. A summer visit is better than no visit at all. Most schools will have special summer visit hours too.
You may not be able to visit all of the colleges on your list, but try to see as many as you can (provided you're not looking at 15+ colleges, in which case, you probably have some more narrowing down to do!). If you can, prioritize visiting a variety of campus types to get a sense of your options: big and small, urban and suburban, undergraduate-only colleges and master’s-level universities, etc. Before leaving a campus, find out the name of the admission counselor responsible for applications from your high school too. This person will likely be your best resource if you apply for admission.
What should you do during a college visit? That’s really up to you, but common options include taking a student-led tour, having an admission interview, and/or attending an information session. (Keep in mind that colleges vary in what they offer.) You may also want to attend a class related to your academic interests, meet with an athletic coach, attend a theater production or student recital, or spend a night in a dorm. Plan what you want to learn on each campus visit in advance, and be sure to ask questions that are important to you and your family.
There's also much to be said for informal, or DIY, campus visits, where you look beyond the perfectly planned "official" tour. 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 at the bulletin boards.
Most importantly, allow yourself to absorb the campus environment during your visits. Can you see yourself studying there? Living there? Making friends? By the end of your visit, you may not be able to say, “This is the one,” but you should know whether it stays on your list.
If your budget for college visits is limited, you can wait to visit a distant campus until you’ve been admitted and the school is an affordable option. You can also ask if there’s anything they can do for students with financial hardship.
If you can't visit your colleges at all, it's important to do additional research. You can ask if your colleges send representatives to your high school or conduct any information programs in your area. Or see if you can speak with a current student, faculty member, or alumni. Better yet, ask if there are other students from your town who attend the school; the college may be able to coordinate an interview with someone closer to home.
- The Ultimate Campus Visit Checklist: Where to Go and Questions to Ask
- Top 10 Campus Visit Tips
- Take the Campus Visit Etiquette Quiz!
How to make your college list
Okay. You have worked your tuchus off and used all of the college search criteria in this guide to find schools that meet all or most of your needs.
First, high five! Second, it’s time to come up with a list of 5–15 colleges that seem like a good fit for you. If you have far more options than that, keep digging with your research to eliminate choices that don’t feel right or don’t check off all (or most) your boxes.
Otherwise, this is the time when your college search spreadsheet becomes your best friend, hero, and favorite thing ever.
Create your own college rankings system
Forget about the national “best colleges” lists for a minute. Instead, create your own college rankings to determine which schools best meet your unique criteria, whether it’s majors, extracurricular activities, research opportunities, Greek life—anything. You can even assign points to these criteria and tally them up for each school. Pro tip: your college search spreadsheet can really come in handy here.
Lock in your safety, reach, and match schools
It’s important to look at your academic record and abilities and focus on colleges that match them. Before you invest time and money in applying to any colleges, compare the average admitted student’s credentials (GPA, test scores, etc.) to your own. That will help you figure out if you’ll almost certainly be admitted (safety school), if you’ll probably be admitted (match, realistic, or 50/50 school), or if you may not be admitted (reach or dream school). You should also consider the cost of tuition, percentage of the student body receiving financial aid, and average amount of aid; this information will help you and your family rank the school for its financial feasibility too.
Here’s the most important thing about choosing your safety, reach, and match colleges: make sure they're ALL schools you’d be happy to attend. Truly, legitimately, genuinely happy. Don’t treat your safety schools as throwaways, and don’t make your reaches the three most selective schools you’ve ever heard of.
Keeping an open mind is often the secret to success in college—and that "safety" school might be your dream school after all.
Deciding where to apply
All of your college research has lead to this: where will you apply?
Your list of schools will probably be pretty fluid throughout the college search process, as some schools are removed, while others are added. Continue to speak with your school 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, it's a good idea to apply to five to eight colleges with a range of selectivity—your “matches,” “reaches,” and “safeties.” There may be times when applying to more than eight schools is appropriate (for example, if you’re applying to highly specialized and competitive programs), but for most high school seniors, eight should give you plenty of solid options. If you are struggling to narrow your college list down to fewer than 10 schools, it’s time to revisit your college search or maybe do more research. You probably want to do a gut check too—why are there so many schools on your list?
But the most important question to ask yourself when considering where to apply is this: “Of the colleges and universities on my list, if only one of them admits me, or only one is affordable, can I go there happily?” The answer should always be “yes.” If you answer “no,” ask yourself why you’re applying to that institution in the first place. Be brutally honest with yourself. With the wide array of colleges in the country, why would you submit an application to a school you would never ultimately attend?
Once you have your final college list, it’s time to get down to filling out those applications.
First, you should know what each college requires: Are they a Common Application member, or do they have their own application? Do they require an essay or writing sample? How many letters of recommendation do you need? Most importantly, what are their application deadlines? Having firsthand knowledge of each college’s application requirements will make the process easier. (You should keep track in your college search spreadsheet too!) Then you can craft an application that showcases why you’re a great match for the college and the college is a great match for you.
- The Ultimate Guide to College Applications: How to Stand Out from the Crowd
- How to Write the College Application Essay
- Standardized Test Scores in the Admission Decision
- College Admission Tests: Everything You Need to Know
- How to Pay for College, Step by Step
- 5 Steps to Making Your Final College Decision
The end of the road (and the end of this college search guide—finally!)
From the beginning of your college search process to the end, always remember that people want to help you—counselors, family, friends, teachers, coaches, mentors, and more. So when you need some help, ask for it.
While the wait between submitting your college applications and receiving your offers of admission can seem like a long one, all of the time you and your family invest in researching which schools are best for you should assure you that when you receive your decisions, you will have options that make you happy. Then the final decision is in your hands, right where it should be.
And when you enroll at the college of your dreams, the time you put into your search will have been completely worthwhile.
PHEW! We hope you found our Ultimate Guide to the College Search helpful! Need more advice? Browse our college admission section!
We'd like to thank the awesome college experts who have contributed to our college search advice over the years and whose wisdom is captured in this guide: Christopher R. Coons, Elmira College; Beth Bryce, Northwood University; Michael Hills, Denison University; Christopher Lydon, The Catholic University of America; Cezar Mesquita, University of Idaho; Julie McCulloh, Gonzaga University; Debra Rudick, New York University; and Logan Walton, Concordia University.