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How to Organize Your College Search

Sorting through all your colleges of interest can be daunting. Follow these tips to organize your college search and keep your sanity.

Finding the right college for you is a big task, especially when you consider there's more than one right college for you. Maybe you’ve just started the college search process, or maybe you’ve started building a list of schools based on your needs and goals for the future. But how organized is it really? Is it just a list of names thrown in a document without any real rhyme or reason to it? While there’s nothing wrong with that, having a more organized approach to keeping your list will help you better understand which colleges are right for you. By staying organized, you can be more thorough in your research and remember exactly what resources, opportunities, and experiences each school will provide you. So here’s some of the best advice I can give you for being organized in your college search. (And don’t forget to use a handy college search spreadsheet to keep track of it all!)

Organize your college research and documents

In order to properly go about your college search, you need to have all of your materials in an easy-to-access place, and before you can even organize your college options, you need to organize your college search processes in general. This should even include having dates and relevant events written down to keep you on a college search timeline. Here are some ways to keep the process organized:

  • Have one digital file for everything: Whether it's a file on your computer or Google Drive, you need somewhere to keep all of your college research, spreadsheets, and documents. You may want to keep financial aid documents in there too, though you could also create a separate folder for them. (Editor’s note: We like Google Drive because you can access it from anywhere, including your phone; it’s compatible with other programs; and it’s free!)
  • Keep hard copies as backup: Be sure to also have one physical place—like a box in your room or a file in a filing cabinet in your house—where you keep any hard copies, like college brochures or notes you took on the road.
  • You need to commit to one calendar too: Whether it’s a paper calendar or on your phone, make sure you use one calendar during your college search and admission process. Fill it up with all upcoming deadlines, test dates, scheduled campus visits, and even goals like “finish first draft of application essay by June 15.” Use it to set automatic reminders too. It’s probably best to make your college search calendar part of your regular calendar too, if you have one, because it’s helpful to know what else is going on in your life when planning college-related things. You don’t want your campus tour of your dream school to be at the same time as your little brother’s middle school graduation ceremony.
  • Tag and save emails: It helps to tag any emails you send with a college search tag and/or put them in a saved messages folder. You might even want to create a specific email account just for college stuff and keep all your messages in there.
  • Leave yourself reminders: If you have trouble remembering stuff, try taping up a little sign in your room or putting a sticky note on your desk (“Don’t forget to do 30 minutes of SAT prep tonight!”).

Create an organizational structure that works for you and stick to it throughout your college search. And whatever you do, make a habit of using it regularly. For example, after any campus visit, be sure to write down your first impression notes right away; then make a habit of either adding them to your physical college folder or transcribing them to your digital folder as soon as you get home.

Related: How to Digitize and Organize Important College and Scholarship Documents

Organize colleges by location

It’s important to keep location in mind during your college search. Be sure to ask yourself: Is location a large or small factor in my search? Where will I be happiest in terms of atmosphere? What locations have the academic and extracurricular opportunities I want? Going far away (like going from your hometown in New Jersey to a university in California) can drastically alter your college experience, not to mention all those hefty airplane tickets for any visits home. Whether you want to stay in state or venture across the country, take advantage of resources like this College Search Map to browse by location.

Organize colleges by major

Make sure to ask yourself: What majors am I most interested in? What kinds of academic experiences do I want to accompany those majors? If you know or have a general idea of what you would like to major in, search for schools that have your major(s). You don’t want to waste money applying to a school only to find out they don’t have anything you really want to study. However, some schools carry the option to create your own major, so check if that is an option should the college not carry your major.

Organize colleges by academics

Make sure to ask yourself: What kind of academic atmosphere am I looking for? How do my grades and test scores stack up for this school? Granted, admission decisions aren’t all about grades and test scores. And you can get into a school even if your stats are below the norm. (It happens all the time.) But it’s still important to consider how your academic profile—and how you like to learn—stack up at your schools. Remember, colleges and universities can offer really different learning environments: some are super vigorous (and stressful), some are more hands-on, and some take a unique approach to classes.

Compare your GPA, classes, and maybe class rank to the average admitted student at any colleges you’re considering. (They should have this information readily available on their website. If not, just give the admission office a call.) If you have taken the SAT or ACT already, compare your scores to those of your colleges’ admitted scores. Don’t feel down if your scores are lower: if you are an underclassman or junior, there is still time to learn test-taking strategies, set good score goals, prepare for the tests, and/or retake the SAT/ACT.

Organize colleges by your own categories

Make sure to ask yourself: What are my top college choices? Which schools are my reaches, matches, and safeties? What else is important to me in a college? If you are unsure what these terms mean, here is a breakdown:

  • Top-choice schools: Basically your favorite colleges and universities. They might be “reaches”; they might be safeties. Even though you should only be applying to colleges you’d be happy to attend, these top choices are the ones you’d be willing to fight for.
  • Reach schools: These are the colleges where you fall below the admitted student profile, whether it's due to test scores, grades, or other factors. Keep in mind that applying to a college where you know you have no chance of getting into is considered risky, as it not only wastes your money but also the time you could have used finding and applying to colleges that really fit you.
  • Safety schools: Safety colleges are the schools where you have a solid chance (above 50%, for example) of getting accepted. What counts as a safety will differ a lot from student to student, so don’t compare yourself to other people. Don’t underestimate these schools! Have at least two or three safeties. I fell in love with and will be attending my safety school.

If there’s something else that’s really important to you in a college—whether it’s having lots of musical groups or a religious background or something else entirely—you can always make that a main part of your college search and organization system.

Get some outside help

College search advice can be incredibly valuable. People who know you well can help you think through tough issues and remind you of things you might have forgotten. And you can learn a ton from their experiences. If you know someone who attended college, ask them about their search and, most importantly, why they chose their college. Some students choose to attend a family member’s alma mater, either for sentimentality, legacy discounts, or simply high regard for the school.

Finally, as much as teenagers hate to have their parents standing over their shoulders, sometimes their opinion is important. In the case of college, it can be extremely important (especially if they’re footing the bill). Your parents want the best for you, so let them make college suggestions to help you make your final decision.

Related: What Do I Do If My Parents and I Disagree About College?

Whatever method you use to organize your college search, just make sure you are staying organized. There are a lot of documents you need to keep track of and important information to know. Not staying organized could mean the difference between a perfect application that catches the attention of your top schools and missing an important step that could cost you admission. Stay organized and good luck on your college search journey!

Still looking for schools to add to your list? Check out our featured colleges to find great options for Business, Education, Science & Engineering, Health & Medicine, the Arts, general undergrad, and much more! 

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