Last Updated: May 4, 2020
You’re in the midst of one of your most important decisions—where you’ll attend college. Indeed, the college search process may appear quite daunting right about now. But hopefully your fears (or anxiety, or whatever you’re feeling right now) will be alleviated by the end of this article, and you’ll have a better sense of the entire process.
At the end of the day, choosing a college is about finding the “right fit.” However, at this point in your search, you may have trouble finding that fit—or perhaps you found more than one. You've probably heard a lot from other people, like relatives who’ve attended college, or you’ve heard great things about XYZ University, or you’ve seen a variety of colleges online or on television. But are any of them right for you? Only you will know. Whether you need help starting your search or narrowing down your choices, you should develop a list of characteristics you want and need in a college.
Make a list of your preferences
Start by thinking about college qualities: size, variety of academic programs, campus environment, athletics, proximity to home, student body diversity, religious affiliation, costs, etc. This may take ample self-reflection, but once your list is complete, you’ll be ready to move on to the next step of your college search journey.
Unless you're strongly interested in a specific major, don’t let an academic program be the first quality you seek—you can always change your major later on. Instead, think about the “character” of a college: Are you looking for a larger research-oriented institution, or would you prefer a smaller liberal arts college? Are you interested in a rural or urban environment? Does a college’s affiliation with Catholicism appeal to you, or do you want an independent college? With thousands of schools at your fingertips, it's important that you know the answers to a few of these questions, so you don’t get pulled in too many different directions.
If you’ve grown up in a small village or town, you may want to escape to a college in a major city. Or perhaps you want to break away from the hustle and bustle and attend college in a rural setting. Maybe you want to go far away, or you might want to live at home and commute. Whatever your preferences, make sure you make them part of your college search process!
Once you have your list of ideal college characteristics, your next step is researching various colleges and checking out different college search engines and guidebooks—the College Search tool on CollegeXpress is a great place to start! When searching online, be as specific as possible (i.e., “urban liberal arts college with a Catholic affiliation” or “large research institution with Biology majors in the Northeast”). Be open to colleges and universities you’re not familiar with—they could be the right fit for you even if you haven't heard of them before. And take the opportunity to ask your parents, friends, counselors, and teachers what they think of your college criteria. They may suggest something you never thought of.
Eventually, you’ll have a list of possible colleges based on your search criteria. Check out their individual websites—first impressions are very important! If you can’t find most of the criteria you’re looking for, move on. College websites provide the basic information (i.e., academic majors, profile of the student body, admission requirements, and more), but they can also give you an inside look at what’s happening on campus. Check out student blogs or Facebook posts. Read the student newspaper online. Follow the school on Twitter. Take a virtual tour of campus. These will all give you a “feel” for the campus culture.
Attend college fairs and visit campuses
After you narrow your list down a little bit more, you should attend a college fair in your area. These may be held at convention centers or right in your high school. Ask your high school counselor for a list of college fairs nearby. When attending, keep an open mind and come prepared. This is your opportunity to seek out colleges you’re interested in and ask specific questions relating to your interests. Again, you’ll get a stronger sense of those colleges for which you want to take the next step—the campus visit.
If at all possible, you must try to visit each college you’re considering. Many schools appear great online, but you’ll only get the true feel of a campus when you see it up close and personal. Many times, you’ll have a “gut feeling” as soon as you step on campus. Do as much as possible during your visit: meet with a professor in a major that interests you, attend a class, eat lunch in the dining hall (college food is an important factor!), and, of course, take a guided tour. Remember to ask a lot of questions and take photos! On your way home, take notes of all of the pros and cons of your visit. These notes will help you prepare for your next college visit and serve as a reminder when you’re deliberating later.
If you can't physically make a trip to campus, try to contact the college(s) to see if you can speak with a current student, faculty member, or alumni. Better yet, see if there are other students from your area who attend that school; the college may be able to coordinate an interview with one of these people closer to home. Finally, you can always view the virtual tour and browse the college’s social media profiles again.
Applying to (and paying for) college
Now that you’ve completed your research and campus visits, it’s time to get down to the real nitty-gritty of it all...applying! First, you should know what each college requires: Are they a Common Application member or do they have an application of their own? Do they require an essay or writing sample? How many letters of recommendation do you need? Most importantly, what are their deadlines? Having firsthand knowledge of each college’s requirements will make the process easier. You should also give yourself and your school counselor ample time to submit official transcripts and letters of recommendation before any deadlines roll around.
While cost shouldn’t be an initial factor for choosing one college over the other, it should be considered when you and your family prepare to finance your education. It’s important that you don’t rule out colleges based on cost alone. Often, relatively expensive colleges and universities can be just as affordable as any other school once you factor in financial aid. You may qualify for a merit-based scholarship and your family may qualify for federal aid too. At the end of the day, you’ll never know how much it will truly cost until you apply.
Enjoy the ride!
Although college seems like a long time from now, it will be here before you know it. Don’t worry though—enjoy it! The college search process is a journey. Sometimes you’ll be stressed and other times you’ll be elated. You’ll hear a lot of things from a lot of different people. You’ll apply. You’ll get accepted. You’ll enroll. Just remember, you know what you want. And you'll know what fits.