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How Should I Start My College Search?

The college search process isn't the same for every student, but these college experts have some advice for how you can get started finding great schools.

Valerie L. SimmonsValerie L. Simmons
Senior Assistant Director of Admission
King's College
Start with what you know best: you! Now take into consideration some of these factors: size, location, distance from home, academic reputation, majors, activities, financial aid, and other services. Decide which factors are most important to you and start your search. Many guidance offices offer software to conduct computer searches and also hard copies of information that colleges have sent to them. Another option is to search online through a trusted website, like CollegeXpress or the CollegeBoard. The more specific you can be about what you are looking for in the searches, the more likely you are to get results that will fit you well. Next, do some research about the colleges you found. Ask neighbors, teachers, and friends what they have heard about the school. Then make sure you go on college visits. The visit will tell you a lot about the school, both through information sessions and tours that you have while you are there but also just the sense you get while being on campus.

CX Experts generic imageTom Weede
Vice President for Enrollment
Butler University

Here are four questions that, if you can answer them honestly for yourself, it will help narrow it down.

  • How far away from home do I want to go? The vast majority of students go to school within three hours of home. In the end, it’s hard to leave familiar things such as family, friends, home, jobs, and even the region you’re familiar with.
  • Do I want city, suburbs, or rural? You should consider which best fits you and your interests.
  • How do I best learn? Do you have to know why? Do you have to know why your wrong answers are wrong? Do you ask lots of questions? If you do, you may be better off in a smaller setting, where the class sizes are better suited to answering individual questions.
  • What extracurricular activities do I want? We know that students who are active and involved in things they enjoy do better in class. Whether it’s athletics or publications or clubs, in general, students do better when they are engaged. So find a place where you’ll be able to be involved.
  • What should I not consider? Be careful about choosing a school only on a major, because most students change majors. Also, if you go to the school that your boy/girl friend attends, you could be setting yourself up for a tough situation—very few high school romances survive the first year of college.

Michael Milone, Ph.D.Michael Milone, PhD
Educational Consultant, Research Psychologist, and Writer
Start your search with one thought in mind: find a college that is a good match for you in the most important ways. Don't get hung up on "rankings." To pick the best college for you, you must know about yourself and the colleges you're considering. All colleges have strong and weak points, depending on what you are looking for. Even basic considerations like the size of a school, where it is located, and the cost are important. That’s why it’s necessary for you to evaluate yourself accurately and to get to know about a college.

Do your basic research. Then figure out a way to communicate with someone who is currently at the college or has been there. Most colleges can help you arrange this if you can’t do it on your own. Read the student newspaper and the local newspaper online if the college is far away. See what students are saying about the college, and get to know what works and doesn’t work for you. Keep in mind, however, that no college is perfect. Look for factors that will make it likely that you will have a successful and enjoyable experience.

Evan E. LippEvan E. Lipp
Vice President for Enrollment Management
Assumption College

The best advice I can give is to start early and pace yourself. The college search process can seem a little overwhelming because there are so many great options to consider, even some beyond what seems like the obvious choices. You don't want to miss any of them, so it helps to have a plan. Start your search by at least the end of the second semester of your junior year, though it’s not unreasonable to start giving thought to potential schools as early as the summer before that. The first thing to consider is what you want from a college. What are you interested in learning? Look through the options different colleges offer and see what seems to match your interests. If you only have an answer because you've been asked so many times and need to say something, reconsider what you really want. It's okay to not yet know exactly what you want to do with your life when you get to college, but try to pin down what you'd like to do and see what schools can help you achieve that goal.

Another big factor is location, which has two aspects. One is distance. How far away do you want to go to school? Do you think you'd be more comfortable closer to home, or would you like to branch out a little farther and explore options at colleges further away? The other is the setting. Would you prefer a large school or a smaller one? Would you rather go to a college in an urban environment or something more out of the way? The next step is to make a list. Don't worry about considering “pros” and “cons” yet, just write down all the schools you're interested in and see how they match up. Try to whittle the number down to the ones you are seriously considering. From there, you can start to look at your choices in greater depth.

The most important thing in this early stage is to get as much information as you can so you can make the best, most informed decision possible. Talk to everyone: parents, older siblings, upperclassmen, teachers, counselors they'll all have a different point of view, even ones you might not have considered. As I said before, one of the most important things at this stage is to keep an open mind.

John Chopka
Vice President for Enrollment Management
Messiah University
The interesting thing about today’s colleges and universities is they’re searching for you. First, I tell students to realize that they are a “hot commodity.”  Today’s competitive landscape and shrinking high school demographics (in many regions) puts the student in the driver’s seat when it comes to navigating through the college selection process. Students are in high demand! While various college guides and rankings can provide insight regarding some of an institution’s quality measurements, it’s important to keep in mind that these tools are merely a starting point for students and their families in their college search. Some important factors that are not measured in various guides and rankings that contribute to the overall “fit” for an individual student include cost and financial aid; campus life and quality of facilities; international study and internship programs; setting and geographical location; and the strength of cocurricular programs such as residence education, service learning, college ministries, and athletics. Ultimately, the best solution for students and their families is to use a variety of research and communication tools to find the college or university that is right for them. The best research is conducted by visiting campus and meeting the faculty, students, and staff that bring the college’s mission to life.

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