How to Navigate the College Search, Step-by-Step

The college search journey can be intimidating, but when you break it down into easy steps, you'll find the process more enjoyable and rewarding.

We don’t mean to toot our own horn, but—beep beep—we have everything you need to find the perfect college. No, really. It’s like having your own free, fancy private college admission advisor. Not only can you search for colleges on CollegeXpress, but you can find a ton of helpful advice on finding the right school for you, knowing the right time to start your search, and much more.

If you're looking for a step-by-step guide to the college search, this is it! The first steps are to find colleges that really and truly fit you—academic fit, social fit, career prep fit...all the fits. Make your list using criteria based on your needs, desires, and goals. When a school is the right fit for you, the financial aid tends to fall into place. And in between, you'll have essays to write, standardized tests to take, campuses to visit, and more fun stuff to do. There may be a lot of steps to take, but everything will be worth it when you're attending a school that fits you perfectly. 

So, ready to start your college search?! We've collected our best articles that will help make every step of the way a whole lot easier. Let’s do this! 

Step 1: Know your college search timeline

Before you even fire up a college search engine, it helps to know what’s ahead of you, including what you need to do and when.

  • Your College Search Timeline: The college application process is going to fly by faster than you'd think. Here's a timeline to help guide you through your junior and senior years.
  • Senior Year College Application Timeline: September of your senior year is college application crunch time! Check out this handy timeline so you know what to do and when to do it.
  • The Transfer Timeline: Planning to transfer to a four-year college or university? This timeline will help keep you on track.
  • College Prep in High School: What to Do All 4 Years: The college search isn’t reserved for just juniors and seniors in high school. Get started on the college search as early as freshman year with this advice!

Step 2: Consider your major and academic options

Majors aren’t the scary, career-binding contracts they often appear to be—we promise.

Step 3: Make a list of what you want in a college

Why do you want to go to college? What do you hope to find when you get there? What do you need to succeed in college and after you graduate? You need to ask yourself these questions (and more) so you know what to look for in a school.

Step 4: Search for schools that fit your criteria to make your college list

Now that you have a good idea of what you want from your future college, you can actually start looking for it!

Step 5: Go on campus visits

This is a surprisingly crucial part of your college search. You really won’t know how you feel about a school until you step foot on campus! 

Step 6: Take standardized tests (or don’t!)

Prepare for the tests you need to take and/or get to know what it means to apply to a test-optional school.

Step 7: Ask for recommendation letters

Ask early. Stick with people who know you well. And don’t forget to thank them!

Step 8: Participate in admission interviews

They may or may not be required, but either way, admission interviews are a valuable piece of the college admission puzzle.

Step 9: Start your application essay

Who knew writing about the subject you know best (yourself) could be so tricky? That’s why it helps to start preparing for your application essays a little early.

Step 10: Narrow your college list

Because five to 10 schools are all you need! 

Step 11: Fill out and send your college applications—on time

Name, address, date of birth: this is the easy part. Just make sure you meet all your deadlines!

Step 12: Begin the financial aid process

This is the part that often provides students the most stress, but that’s why we have all the advice for you!

Step 13: Make your final college decision!

Even if you’re accepted by your #1 school, it’s a good idea to explore your options, especially by comparing your financial aid award letters. 

Of course, the college process doesn’t stop here; it’s just the beginning! The scholarship hunt is the next big step, so get started on CollegeXpress using our Scholarship Search tool.

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
CollegeXpress Logo


Are you our next winner?

Register now for our scholarship giveaway

College Matches