Featured Image

How to Find the Right College Fit

The college search can be daunting if you're not sure what you're looking for. Get a sense for the whole process and find your best fit with this advice!

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!

Related: This or That: What to Consider Before Choosing a College

Research

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.

Related: How to Navigate College Fairs From Start to Finish

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.

Related: Senior Year College Application Timeline

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.

Start searching for your best-fit schools using our unique Lists & Rankings or our College 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
Sarah Armstrong

Sarah Armstrong

High School Class of 2022

I am a deaf student, and I had always dreamed of going to Gallaudet University. CollegeXpress helped me search though other qualified universities. They helped me know for sure that Gallaudet University was the right choice for me!

Sonny Harris

Sonny Harris

College Student

For the entire year before college, I spent a lot of time deeply considering what major I wanted to go into and how to fund my higher education. After a lot of research, I came across CollegeXpress, which helped me ultimately find a ton of scholarships for which I could apply—and some of which I received! If it weren’t for CollegeXpress, I may not have found those scholarships as they didn't appear on any other scholarship search forum. Additionally, I learned more about the options I had been considering for my major through CollegeXpress’s resources. In the end, I chose to major in Computer Science, as it seemed best suited to me and the careers in the field seemed enjoyable, and I've never been more excited to move into my future! Ultimately, I want to thank CollegeXpress for offering their services. I received enough financial aid in scholarships to fund my entire freshman year of college and even got some money refunded which I used to purchase a new laptop, and I bought all of the books I needed for the semester!

Ruth Aguilar

Ruth Aguilar

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress helped me by providing me with many scholarship opportunities and information about universities I want to attend. What I love about CollgeXpress is how it provides a variety of information, and as the first child attending a university next year, it has been very essential and helpful. I’m so grateful for this because the information provided by CollegeXpress has also helped me see that there are so many college opportunities, and it always informs me by email. In other words, CollegeXpress has been like a guide for me as a future college student.

Maria  Fernanda

Maria Fernanda

High School Class of 2023

CollegeXpress is always telling you with time to spare when to apply for certain scholarships, what they require, and if you’re eligible or not. They also provide helpful tips for both incoming college students and current college students, such as what to absolutely have in your dorm.

Hailey Riddile

Hailey Riddile

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress has helped me find scholarships to apply for and look into more colleges. While there are many websites similar to CollegeXpress, every website is different, and I've found a lot of good insight on this website. Receiving emails from CollegeXpress about scholarships is extremely useful, and getting insight about colleges near, far, and anywhere in between helps me narrow down my choices to what I want, which is also super helpful. The articles are always really good reads, and I can't stress enough how helpful this website has been to me. Anything related to college is beneficial to me as a senior, and I have learned lots of useful things to help me on my college journey this year.

College Matches