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Your College Search: When and How to Start

Do you feel lost when trying to begin your college search? You're not alone. Find out more about when and how to start your search process now.

Do you feel lost when trying to begin your college search? Does the idea of narrowing down the colleges and universities you are considering into a manageable list seem overwhelming? You're not alone. You should start by asking yourself, “What is most important to me as I begin to search for the right school?” Then take a deep breath and dive right in. Here, we break down the most important aspects of your college search

Your high school years

The best preparation for your college career is to do your best academic work throughout high school and take advantage of activities that are meaningful to you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the whole point of high school is figuring out where you will go to college. Your high school years are a very important part of your intellectual and personal development, and spending too much time focusing solely on which college you will attend will minimize how much you get out of that formative time.

Also remember that high school is a four-year experience and colleges expect you to maintain an appropriately challenging schedule and achieve your best possible grades through senior year. If you spend senior year fixated on the college search without balancing your high school responsibilities, you may hurt your chances for admission. Colleges and universities pay careful attention to your senior year performance, and even if you are admitted through an Early Action or Early Decision plan, admission counselors will check mid-year and final grades to ensure your performance remained consistent even after an offer of admission.

So when should your college search start? Your junior year is often viewed as the best time to begin seriously considering the college process; however, there are many students who are actively thinking about their search sophomore year and still others who wait until before or during their senior year. Just keep in mind that there’s little to lose by starting early and the longer you wait, the less time you have to complete a thorough search, which can lead to missed deadlines and even postponing your entrance into college. Regardless of when you begin your college search, there are some steps you can take to minimize stress and avoid having the process dominate your every thought.

Related: Your College Search Timeline

The student-parent partnership

It’s best to remember that this process requires some candid discussions with your parents or guardians. You cannot do this alone, and they will have some important insights into the types of schools that might be worth your consideration. The college search works best—and can be less stressful—if students and their families understand that the decision-making process should be a partnership, and good communication can go a long way toward avoiding surprises and unnecessary anxiety.

A conversation between you and your family can be a great starting point. You can talk broadly about academic areas that may interest you—though at this stage it’s perfectly reasonable to be unsure of your college major. Consider a variety of other characteristics that can help you begin a more focused search. Do you want to stay close to home, within a two- or three-hour drive, or are you open to any distance? Do you feel most comfortable in a smaller college community, or does the idea of attending a school with thousands of students seem exciting? Think about locations: are you interested in the possibility of attending college in a bustling city, or do you think you’ll be more comfortable in a suburban or rural setting? How important will merit scholarships or need-based financial aid be in your final decision? You don’t need to know the answers to all of these questions right away, but keeping them in mind will help you narrow down your search.

Doing the research

First things first: be open-minded. The best college for you might be one you’ve never heard of before. That’s why an important part of your search should include ample research, and there are many websites devoted to the process. These websites usually have a wide array of information that should allow you to make some comparisons about programs, student life, admission, financial aid, and retention and graduation rates. Comparison shopping is a helpful way to learn differences between schools and to be better informed about the types of information that will help you and your family make good decisions about your college investment. This type of research will also help you consider a wider array of colleges before embarking on your college visits.

Throughout your research and visits, remember to ask important questions regarding how the schools you are considering will help you reach your personal goals successfully. One of the most important facts to consider is how effectively a college retains and graduates its students. The freshman-to-sophomore retention rate and the four-year graduation rate are important signifiers of how your education will keep you progressing toward your career goals. A school that looks less expensive in annual costs may be less of a bargain if a low percentage of students graduate in four years. And a more expensive school that demonstrates a higher four-year graduation rate may actually be a better value.

Related: 5 Things to Research Again Before Choosing a College

Campus visits: An essential tool

Your next step is to create a plan to start visiting college campuses. If at all possible, visit a variety of campus types: large and small, urban and suburban, undergraduate colleges and larger universities. These initial campus visits will help clarify the characteristics that seem the most attractive to you, and they’ll give you a better sense of what your life there might be like. Deciding on a list of schools to visit is an important discussion to have with your family as well, so you can plan for school and summer vacation opportunities.

Campus tours, information sessions, and personal interviews are typical campus visit experiences, though not all schools offer the opportunity for a personal interview. Be sure to plan in advance what you want to learn on each campus visit; you’ll get a lot of valuable information from a formal tour or presentation, but be sure to ask questions that are specifically important to you or your family. Most importantly, allow yourself to absorb the campus environment. Can you see yourself studying there? Making friends? If you plan to be a resident student, can you see yourself living there? The visit should engage your senses, and it’s helpful to take notes regarding your thoughts and gut reactions to the campus that you can refer to later. By the end of your visit, you may not be able to say, “This is the one,” but you should know whether it stays on your list.

Before leaving a campus, try to learn the name of the admission counselor responsible for applications from your high school. This person will likely be the best resource for you if you choose to apply for admission. If your budget for college visits is limited, you can choose to wait to visit a distant campus until you’ve been admitted and the school is an affordable option. You can also ask if there’s any financial aid for campus visits for students with financial hardship. You should also do additional online research and investigate whether those long-distance schools send representatives to your high school or conduct any area information programs. But regardless of how much research you do, it is highly inadvisable to enroll at a school you have not seen in person.

Narrowing down your list

All of your research and campus visits lead to this question: where will you apply? Everything up to this point will have provided you and your family with the information necessary to have this vitally important conversation.

Your final college list should ideally be no more than six to eight schools. If you are struggling to narrow your list down to fewer than 10 schools, then it’s time do additional research—and perhaps some soul searching—to trim the list. There may be some exceptions when a list of more than eight schools is appropriate (for example, when applying to highly specialized and competitive programs) but for most high school seniors, eight should give you plenty of solid options.

The most important question to ask yourself when considering where to apply is this: “Of the schools on my list, if only one of them admits me, or only one is affordable, can I go there happily?” If you ask this question of yourself—and are brutally honest about it—the answer should always be “yes.” If you answer “no,” then ask yourself why you’re applying to that institution in the first place. With the wide array of colleges in the country, why would you submit an application to a school you would never ultimately choose? Remove that school from your list and keep searching for better choices. Never submit an application without a complete understanding of the fit between you and the institution.

Related: Narrow Down Your College Choices

The best choice for you

While the wait between submitting your applications and receiving your offers of admission can seem like a long one, all of the time you and your family invest in researching your best-fit schools will help to assure that when you receive your decisions, you will have choices that make you happy. Then the final decision is in your hands, right where it should be. And when you find the school of your dreams, the time you put into your search will have been completely worthwhile.

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