Originally Posted: Feb 1, 2016
Last Updated: Feb 25, 2021
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.
- 5 Tips for Choosing a Major: These five tips are quick and easy—because choosing a major shouldn't be the hardest part of your college search journey.
- Do–it–Yourself Interdisciplinary Majors: The options for your future are limitless when you consider the possibility of designing a major of your own.
- 3 Tips to Help You Narrow Down Your Major Choices: If you’re torn between a few different fields, here’s some advice to help narrow down your list.
- 4 Interesting Ways to Help You Find Your College Major: Sometimes you need to get a little creative to take the pressure off of picking your major.
- All the Wrong Reasons to Choose a Major: Are you thinking about committing to a major because you're passionate about it—or are you picking it for the wrong reasons? Find out here.
- How to Choose Your Major (or Not): Did you know most students aren't required to declare a major until the end of their sophomore year of college? Here's how to explore your interests if you're not sure what you want to study.
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.
- The 4 Foundations of Your College Search: If we’re really going to boil down the college search to the most important factors, these would be at the top.
- Top Factors to Consider When Choosing a College or University: These are the biggest things any and all students should consider when researching colleges.
- 30 Questions You Need to Ask Before Choosing a College: Are you asking schools the right questions? This big list might surprise you.
- 10 Uncommon Questions to Ask in Your College Search: There's no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to finding your dream school. Here are some important questions you may not think to ask.
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!
- The Ultimate Guide to the College Search: How to Find Your Perfect College Match: This guide covers everything. Use it to your advantage!
- Your College Search: When and How to Start: You're not alone if you feel lost about where to start the college search process.
- How to Start the College Search for Students With Disabilities: The college search process can be even more daunting if you're living with a disability. Here are some ways to enhance your college search.
- 5 Easy Ways to Start Your College Search: Jump-start your college search with these painless strategies.
- How to Build the Perfect College List: This article breaks down the process and reminds you that this should be an enjoyable journey!
- CollegeXpress's College Search Tool: Search for schools by major, location, size, and more with our very own search engine.
- CollegeXpress Lists & Rankings: These aren't your average top 10 school lists. Check them out to make your search more fun—we have over 800!
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!
- Campus Visits: Your College Search Secret Weapon: If you’re debating even going on campus visits, read this before you decide it’s not worth it.
- Ways to Make Campus Visits More Fun (Plus, Campus Visit Bingo!): These activities are sure to make repetitive college tours more entertaining.
- The Worst Campus Visit Mistakes to Avoid: Be sure to avoid doing these things when you head off on a campus tour.
- 10 Things to Do on a Campus Visit: On the other hand, make sure you are doing all of these things to get the most out of your experience!
- College Visits Should Be Fun, Not Stressful: Some advice for anyone feeling the stress overtaking the joy of the process.
- The Ultimate Campus Visit Checklist: Where to Go and Questions to Ask: Questions, questions, and more questions! But seriously, you should be asking your tour guide as many questions as possible.
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.
- All of the Tests! How to Prepare for the ACT, SAT, and More: There are so many tests you could take to show colleges your academic merit. Here’s a guide to figure out what’s best for you and how to prepare for it.
- How to Make Studying for Standardized Tests Fun: It may be hard to believe, but it is possible—learn more here!
- 4 Reasons You Should Take SAT Subject Tests: If you’ve only been planning to take the SAT or ACT, stop and consider SAT subject tests too.
- How to Set Good Expectations for Your SAT or ACT Scores: The SAT and ACT certainly aren’t easy, but you can set reasonable goals for yourself to get through them.
- Understanding Standardized Tests and Scores: To know how they’re going to help in your college applications, you really need to understand standardized tests and what your scores mean.
Step 7: Ask for recommendation letters
Ask early. Stick with people who know you well. And don’t forget to thank them!
- Top 5 Questions About Recommendation Letters, Answered: You’ve probably been asking yourself these questions, so here are the answers!
- 8 Tips for Choosing Recommendation Writers: Letters of recommendation are important in the college admission process. Make sure you’re choosing the right people!
- Who and How to Ask for College Recommendation Letters: Figuring out who to ask for recommendations is almost as hard as figuring out the right way to ask Luckily, we’ve got advice for both!
- Counselor Q&A: Writing an Effective Letter of Recommendation: Since you don’t get to see what’s in your recommendation letters, here’s some inside information on what counselors are saying about you.
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.
- College Admission Interviews: Everything You Need to Know: You'll be sure to leave a good impression on your interviewer with this comprehensive advice.
- How Should I Prepare for an Admission Interview?: Follow this top interview advice from someone who’s on the inside of college admission.
- The Hardest Admission Interview Questions: Don’t get tripped up by these difficult but popular admission interview questions.
- How to Ace the College Interview: Think of the interview like a verbal test that you can nail with a bit of preparation.
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.
- Why Your College Application Essay Matters: If you need a little motivation to get started on your essay, read about why it’s so important to do.
- Application Essay Example: The Surgeon: If you work better with examples to guide you, here’s a great application essay that got the student who wrote it into college!
- Busting the Worst Admission Essay Myths: There’s a lot of false information out there about the college essay. Make sure you don’t fall for these fictions.
- Top College Essay Tips From Admission Insiders: You want your admission essay to stand out in a good way...and these admission experts know how you can do just that.
- Steering Clear of College Application Essay Mistakes: Here's what you need to do before, during, and after writing your essay!
Step 10: Narrow your college list
Because five to 10 schools are all you need!
- Cut Down Your Giant College List With a College Search Rubric: Making a spreadsheet will make all the ways a college doesn’t meet your needs (or all the ways it surpasses them) totally clear.
- Finalize Your College List With These 7 Expert Tips: Sometimes narrowing down your college options is about asking the right questions about a school, and sometimes it’s about asking yourself the right questions.
- Narrow Down Your College Choices: Planning and organizing really help put your needs into perspective when you narrow down your college list.
- How to Know When Your College List Is Final: It’s never going to seem “perfect,” but this advice can get you as close to that feeling as possible.
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!
- How to Motivate Yourself to Start College Applications: The first step to anyone’s college application process is just finding the energy and time to do it. You got this!
- When and How to Apply to College: Here’s a timeline to help guide you through the application process.
- The 5 Types of College Application Deadlines: Make sure you know what type of admission you're applying for before those applications are out of your hands.
- 13 Tips to Finish Your College Applications With Confidence: Take the stress out of finishing up your college applications with these helpful tips.
- 10 Things to Do Before You Submit Your College Applications: Make sure all of these items are done and taken care of before sending your applications off!
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!
- The Best FAFSA Advice and Resources: A link to another article of links? We know. But the FAFSA is its own beast to tackle, and we have all the best advice here.
- Types of College Financial Aid: The best way to get the most financial aid possible is by first understanding what your options are.
- How to Get the Most Financial Aid Possible: Use these tips to maximize your funding opportunities for college!
- Financial Aid Do’s and Don’ts: Financial aid is crucial to your college journey, so make sure you’re doing it right.
- Top Financial Aid Mistakes: You do not want to do anything that could compromise your financial aid, so here's what you should avoid!
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.
- 5 Steps to Making Your Final College Decision: Like breaking the rest of the college search journey into easy steps, you can do the same to help you make your final choice.
- Making Your Final College Decision: If you really can’t decide, take advice from an admission official at Seton Hall University. She really gets the struggle.
- How I Made My Final College Decision: Or maybe you need to hear from a student just like you! Hannah’s got you covered.
- 3 Things You Can Do If You're Not Happy With Your Financial Aid Package: Not satisfied with the aid a school offers you? You have options...learn them here.
- What If I Picked the Wrong College?! (Here's What Happens...): You’ll be surprised by the answer.
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.