Simplifying the College Search Process

Director of Outreach and Recruitment, The Ohio State University

Classifying the college search process as one of great stress to young adults might be an understatement. Considering the complex landscape of college recruitment and admission, it becomes evident that an aspiring college student’s process of evaluating and selecting an institution of higher learning is a source of great strain and angst. Students need to not only assess the type of institution—large or small, urban or rural, public or private, liberal or comprehensive—they must also navigate the waters of Early Action, Early Decision, priority deadlines, and rolling admission. Add to this the vast amount of information regarding academic quality, social culture, internships, co-ops, study abroad, and the excessive lists of benefits each institution touts in order to encourage students’ interest. All the while there are the ever-present concerns about rising costs, eligibility for scholarships and other aid, affordability, and ultimately return on investment . . . so, yes, calling it a stressful process is a great understatement, indeed!

While students try to wrap their heads around all of this information, they are also completing their final year of high school, taking state-mandated tests, preparing for standardized tests, and much more—in addition to their general course work, part-time jobs, and family obligations. Considering the position these students find themselves in, it isn’t a wonder that anxiety runs high throughout the process. However, in the hearts and minds of many admission professionals, this does not need to be the case.

Contrary to the maligned image of a Grinchy college admission director manically laughing as they stamp “deny, deny, deny” on a pile of applications, admission professionals most certainly do not relish the strain under which students are placed. Rather, it is quite the opposite.

In the vast majority of the 4,000 or so institutions in the United States, the admission office is focused on helping students find their “fit.” And it behooves both parties to find such a match. Colleges and universities succeed by enrolling students not only in their first semester as freshmen but for every semester thereafter, while students ultimately succeed by becoming a degree-holding alumnus of that institution. Accordingly, admission counselors focus largely on sharing information about their institutions in order to help students envision themselves on campus and decide whether or not a school is a good match for them.

The secret to finding the “fit”

Among universities, colleges, and tried-and-true academic research, one element of the college search process continues to surface as perhaps the most significant: the campus visit. It cannot be undersold as the opportunity for a potential student to “test drive” the schools they’re considering. Whether the student and their respective family or support group attend a tour, a campus-based program, or other admission function, the important element is the ability to see, feel, hear, touch, and, yes, even taste (the campus food, of course!) all aspects of an institution. There is little that can replace the opportunity to see a college in all its glory, with students rushing to class and the thrum and beat of the campus’s heart and soul. Doing so—having the chance to interact with current students and faculty, to see and experience life on campus—can be one of the most impactful decision-making experiences in the college search process.

However, given distance, time, and cost, the reality of being able to visit every campus that a student may be interested in can easily become prohibitive. This has given rise to the growth of information across college search engines, social media, and multitudes of technological outlets for students to learn about and engage with campuses. Many campuses use some variation and combination of these tools in order to provide a feel and insight into their academics and student life for those who have not yet or may not get to visit the campus. While the plethora of information now available online (including virtual tours, virtual campus fairs, and recruitment webinars) can enable students to better understand their decision factors and how a school may or may not meet their needs, it is, nonetheless, an overwhelming onslaught of information. (Take a look at this list of college search questions you can use while conducting your online research.)

How then should students, along with their respective support networks of family and friends, go about selecting the pool of schools to which they should apply and ultimately enroll? Without oversimplifying the emotional aspect associated with the process, a technique that has withstood the test of time can often prove quite useful in these cases: students can prepare a comprehensive list of those items that are truly most important in the experience they seek and hope to attain during their college career to provide focus in the research process. This list should include both wish list items and practical must-haves.

If it is crucial that a student receive a certain amount of financial aid (need- and merit-based combined), using a Net Price Calculator on a school’s website to assess and research what the reality of aid might be at that institution may be a necessity. Likewise, if a specific academic program or major is an essential criterion, students should spend time researching the quality of faculty, the experiences of students in that program, and the types of opportunities students and graduates of the program have.

Regarding cost and financial aid, when searching for colleges, keep in mind that the “sticker price” might be vastly different once you figure in your financial aid offer. So focus on finding a college that fits—really fits—and then compare your choices against financial aid estimates. Financial aid officers are generally unable to give you award evaluations before they properly process your application and official FAFSA results, but you can use the FAFSA4caster to get an idea of the federal aid you may be eligible for.

Being armed with a wealth of research and understanding about a school and how it relates to important decision factors will allow students and their support networks to engage more effectively with university representatives. After compiling a list of critical items, wish list items, priorities, etc. and assessing what schools fall into the realm of meeting these search needs, the next step is to engage with the institution. If visiting is not an option due to time, distance, or cost, students should call admission offices to speak with a counselor or find out when a counselor may be visiting their area. Most admission representatives look forward to the opportunity to meet and speak with prospective students throughout their territories and will often schedule “coffee shop visits” for students and their families. Students can then use the research list they have painstakingly compiled to help script questions designed to gather more detailed insights about the school, connecting with faculty and current students, and what students can expect from living on that campus.

Nevertheless, even the best-laid plans can go awry if life gets busy, school demands time, and suddenly admission deadlines are upon you. Therefore, the more research, planning, and networking that students do as underclassmen or even during the summer before senior year, the easier the entire college application and enrollment process will be.

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