College Search Advice From an Admission Insider

Not sure how to navigate the college search? Here's an inside view of college admission and financial aid, plus strategies to make your process successful.

For some students, the college search process is an intensely personal and exciting journey. For others, it’s a source of nervousness and frustration. But for most students, it’s all of the above. Students are expected to maintain their academic performance, remain dedicated to extracurricular commitments and personal responsibilities, and take time to research multiple college options in their spare time. To say the process can feel overwhelming would be an understatement. To help you navigate the sometimes stressful, sometimes joyful process, I’ll be offering an insider’s view of college admission and financial aid, along with some strategies that will help your college search.

Ground your research in a case study

With more than 4,000 two- and four-year degree-granting institutions in the United States, it can be challenging to know where to begin your college search. There may be hundreds or even thousands of schools where you could be a competitive applicant. One way to help narrow down your choices is to start by conducting reflective research on one particular school—a test school, if you will.

Whether you use a local college or university or one farther afield, ground your college research through the offerings of that specific institution. Rather than simply perusing the admission website or viewing photos and comments posted to social media pages, dig into the institution. Learn specifics about the curriculum, course offerings, and research opportunities. Push beyond the student-faculty ratio to better understand the level of interaction between faculty and students. Identify aspects of the student experience that appear to be unique to the institution. Then ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What specific components of the academic program interest me and why?
  2. What academic, extracurricular, and social opportunities are missing, and how does their absence affect my affinity for the college or university?
  3. What evidence is provided to indicate how students interact with each other and how they engage with the local area?
  4. What specific aspects of the experience would allow me to expand as an individual, a scholar, and a professional?

The goal of reflective research is not just to learn about one college or university but to also learn about your own perceptions and expectations. This reflective research framework allows you to use the insight you gain from researching one college or university to inform your research on others.

Related: 5 Easy Ways to Start Your College Search

Reach high, but keep it real

A college or university’s acceptance rate is just the tip of the admission iceberg. You’ll find standardized test score information, median or average GPA ranges, and class rank statistics on general college search websites (like!), on college or university admission websites, and in college and university guidebooks. This information is intended to help you understand the academic characteristics of an institution’s student population. It can also provide a good initial framework to begin your college search and help create a realistic college list.

While these data points are helpful, they don't often provide the full story. Many admission offices at private colleges and universities conduct holistic reviews of application materials. This means that no one piece of the application carries more weight than the other. In a holistic review, academic program rigor, course grades, standardized test scores, college essays, letters of recommendation, and other school-specific requirements complement each other. Admission officers also take into account family background, educational opportunities, and personal experiences when reviewing individual applications. Every application is evaluated within the context of a student’s high school and community environment. To better understand any college or university’s data, it's important to know if it employs a holistic review process.

You must find the right balance between setting realistic expectations and not selling yourself short in the college search process. Significant research has identified the phenomenon of academic “undermatching.” This is when students attend institutions that are less selective than their academic credentials might have allowed. The college search process is not a time to be self-effacing about your academic achievements. Be realistic but also set high expectations.

Related: How to Pick Your Safety, Reach, and Match Colleges

Respond to receive more information and indicate your interest

As the brochures in your family’s mailbox may attest, colleges and universities develop ample materials to provide information to prospective students. Through a combination of email, print, video, social media, and other communications, schools want to provide students with a better understanding of their academic offerings and student experience. Many of these communications embed the opportunity for recipients to indicate they're interested in receiving additional information.

Students often delete these messages or disregard the mailed materials. But by not responding, you may miss an opportunity to learn more about specific aspects of an institution. Simply providing your contact information will allow you the opportunity to serve as a passive consumer, meaning you'll continue to receive information and learn more without spending additional time conducting focused research. Sharing your contact information will also signal your interest in a particular college or university. This is important, because some colleges and universities track “demonstrated interest” in their institution and incorporate it as part of the admission process.  

Reframe your perception of published costs

At first glance, the cost of attending a four-year private college or university may appear beyond a student or family’s financial means. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost of attendance at a four-year private institution was $41,426 for the 2019–2020 academic year. These figures are staggering, but they're rarely indicative of a school’s true cost.

Students who don't consider four-year private colleges and universities based solely on the published total cost of attendance are at risk of the aforementioned undermatching. Financial aid and scholarship opportunities often allow for a significant reduction to that published cost. Institutions committed to meeting 100% of demonstrated need ensure that students and families are able to afford the experience. For example, Colby College listed its total cost of attendance as $71,250–$72,500 for the 2018–2019 academic year. Because the College meets 100% of demonstrated need, students and families may pay anywhere from $0 to the total published cost, depending on the amount of financial aid they qualify for based on the College’s review of their financial situation.

Some students disregard selective colleges and universities that match their academic credentials because of a published cost of attendance that they would not be expected to pay. Before deciding to apply, confirm whether or not a college or university is committed to meeting 100% of your demonstrated need and if a school has a no-loan policy. It could mean that your total cost of attendance at a private school is less than the total cost of attendance at a state institution.

Related: How to Get the Most Financial Aid Possible for Your College Education

Celebrate all positive outcomes

Invariably, there will be schools you prefer over others. But all acceptances should be celebrated. Some students and family members focus on the negative outcomes rather than the positive ones. This is simply the wrong approach. Making the decision to attend a two- or four-year institution indicates a deep commitment to learning and personal development. The moment students receive their admission decisions is not the time to reinforce negative feelings.

Regardless of the outcomes, rejoice for the past achievements that may have led to admittance and the possibilities that may come from the experience. The good news that ultimately comes with the conclusion of the process presents an opportunity to celebrate years of hard work, dedication, and achievement. Embrace the moment and look forward to your college experience with unbridled enthusiasm.

Still looking for your best-fit schools? Find and request information from them using our College Search tool

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