Originally Posted: Nov 14, 2016
Last Updated: Nov 5, 2020
Feeling clueless about the college search process? It might feel like a whirlwind now, but it gets easier! Plus, if you get the inside scoop, you won't feel so lost. So don’t tell your school counselor that we told you, but here are a few well-kept secrets you need to know before you start your search.
There is more than one perfect college for you
Finding the right college isn’t a needle-in-the-haystack situation. There are a lot of schools out there, offering virtually any academic major and extracurricular activity you can imagine in all corners of the country. If you cast a wide net and keep an open mind, you’re bound to find plenty of colleges and universities that meet your needs—and your budget.
Colleges look at more than your application
Basically every time you interact with a college or university, they track it, from admission interviews and campus visits to simple requests for information. These are all examples of “demonstrated interest.” When admission folks look at your file and see you’re interacting with the school a lot, it tells them you’re more interested in attending. And since colleges want to admit the most enthusiastic candidates—partially because the more students who accept their offers of admission, the better the schools look—they may be more inclined to accept you, since they know you’re more inclined to say yes. To be clear, this demonstrated interest isn’t more important than, say, your high school record, but it might give you an edge.
Your “safety” schools are more important than you realize
The secret to a successful college search is making sure every school on your list—whether it’s a safety or a reach—is a place you’d be happy to attend. Don’t treat your safety schools like throwaway backup plans. In fact, they might be the most important schools you apply to. That’s because you’ll probably be among their strongest applicants, and the schools may be more likely to give you a competitive financial aid package to entice you to enroll. Imagine: you’d be happy to attend the school and they’d give you the most financial aid. Not a bad deal, right? So conduct a thorough, thoughtful college search to find safety, match, and reach schools that really fit you.
You can talk to college professors as a high school student
If you have a major or two in mind, try e-mailing a professor in the department at the colleges you’re applying to. Ask them a thoughtful question or two about the program and let them know why you want to study it at their college. There’s no guarantee they’ll have the time to get back to you, but they might have helpful insights to share. And they also might let the admission committee know about this super passionate, awesome kid they should totally admit into the college…
You don’t have to be a “well-rounded” student to get into college
If we had a nickel for every time we heard the phrase “well-rounded” in college admission talk…sheesh! The thing is colleges these days don’t want well-rounded students; they want well-rounded classes. Artists and entrepreneurs, activists and athletes, and everything in between. So don’t worry about becoming a jack-of-all-trades (and, inevitably, a master of none). Just stick with the extracurricular activities you’re passionate about, and you’ll be fine.
You can afford to go to college
Even if your family makes very little money. Even if your grades aren’t get-all-the-scholarships good. There are so many colleges and universities out there (4,700-ish when you count two- and four-year schools). There are so many opportunities to get financial aid (scholarships, grants, even subsidized loans). And there are so many ways to reduce what you owe overall (like earning credits at a cheaper school and transferring). If you work hard, ask for help, and seek out every single opportunity available to you, you can afford to go to college. Also keep in mind some of the most expensive and selective schools in the country are the most generous with need-based financial aid. Case in point: if you can get into Harvard, you can afford to go to Harvard, no matter how much—or how little—money your family makes.
Your college search actually starts freshman year
Okay, not literally. You shouldn’t be firing up college search engines as a freshman in high school; after all, what you want in a college will probably change by the time you’re a senior anyway. But when colleges are looking at your application packet, they’re really looking at your whole high school record. Everything you do throughout high school builds to the applicant you’ll be fall of senior year. So you should work hard and try your best, in class and out, starting day one of freshman year. (And if you're past freshman year, start now.) Trust us, your future self will thank you.
CollegeXpress has all the dirt on the college search—start with our College Admission section!