Surviving Your College Search: A 5-Step Plan

In the college search, everyone says "the world is your oyster!" But what do you do when the oyster feels more like a blue whale?

Picture this: It’s September, and you’re a high school sophomore sitting in your college counselor’s office. There’s a loud thud as your counselor tosses the big book of colleges (one with every college in America listed in it) down on the wooden coffee table in front of you. She doesn’t say this exactly, but it’s being implied from your counselor, your teachers, and your parents: “Pick one. Now.” You start to feel droplets of sweat threatening to escape your pores. Your stomach feels like it’s climbing into your throat. All your upperclassmen friends seem to know not only where they want to enroll, but also how they are going to get in. Everyone has The Great Eight—the eight colleges you know you want to apply to—solidified. Everyone except you, that is. You aren’t even 16 years old yet, but already, you’re being left behind on what seems like the most important decision of your life.

To a lot of students in 21st century American high schools, this is how the college search process feels. Our parents and teachers are telling us that the world is our oyster, that we have every choice and opportunity in the world set up for us. But the oyster feels more like a blue whale. There are too many choices, and they are all just too big for us to make on our own. However, instead of getting overwhelmed by the college search process, it is best to just dive right in and tackle it step-by-step. Below are my steps to success. They’re proven to work—because I went through this process and came out alive on the other side.

1. Figure out what you want

In the sea of chaos that is the entire college search and application process, you have at least two things that you know for sure: your thoughts and opinions. Of course those are subject to change over the next few years, but in this moment you know what you want. Or at least you can deduce what you want with a little introspection.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you want a big school or a small school?
  • What are your favorite subjects in school?
  • What are you best at?
  • How far away do you want to be from home?
  • Where would you like your school to be located?
  • What are your favorite extracurricular activities?
  • What are your thoughts on Greek Life?
  • Will you be playing a sport in college? If so, at what competitive level?

You don’t necessarily have to know the answers to all of these questions, and you can adjust accordingly later if you change your mind. But in order to get your list down to a few colleges worth visiting before senior year comes, you should simply go with your gut feeling on your current answer to each. You might be surprised by how much answering those few questions narrows your focus!

I remember answering them myself and realizing how few liberal arts colleges in the Northeast with less than 10,000 students there were in comparison to all the colleges in those big books you find in your counselor’s office. I also remember having a male friend realize that a school he was interested in turned out to be a women’s college. Although it seems daunting now, your list will narrow itself down for you if you let it.

Related: What Really Matters in Your College Search 

2. Figure out what you need

Your wants and your needs are two different things. Do you want a small research university? Awesome, now your list is even shorter. Do you need a lot of financial aid (and who doesn’t)? You should be looking at state schools and private schools where you’re a super competitive applicant—meaning your academic and extracurricular profile put you among the top students applying.

It is important to involve your parent or guardian in conversations like this to figure out what you can afford as a family. To get a sense of what you might receive in federal aid, which you can use at all public and nearly all private schools, use the FAFSA4Caster tool found on the federal FAFSA.

3. Visit everywhere

If you get the opportunity to visit a school, take it. Even if you don’t end up wanting to apply, visiting helps you get your priorities straightened out more than any amount of research online ever could. I remember thinking that I would love to go to school in a big city, but when I actually visited an urban school, I realized it wasn’t right for me and that I should not apply to schools with city campuses. That one visit probably saved me hours of research, not to mention the time and money spent applying to schools I wouldn’t have even liked. It’s really hard to know if you feel at home on a campus or not until you visit. We are visual creatures, so go see and do and feel the vibe before sending in that application.

Related: How I Chose My College

4. Be open minded

Maybe your dad’s dream has always been for you to go to his alma matter. Maybe your boyfriend or girlfriend is begging you to visit the school that’s recruiting them for sports. Maybe you cringe at the thought of going to the school 30 minutes away from home. Speaking of being open minding, no matter how much you think you will hate the schools that are being forced upon you, give them a chance and go for a visit. Your priorities can change pretty quickly when you fall in love with a campus.

That being said, never forget that you are the #1 priority during this process. Not your significant other, not your friends, and not even your parents. They aren’t the ones who will have to live with your college selection for the rest of their lives. But you will. You don’t want to find yourself sitting in your dorm three years from now hating every minute, just because you made your college choice based on someone else’s expectations.

5. Have fun!

You might find this hard to believe, but the college search process can be a ton of fun if you let it! Go on a college road trip with your best friends to visit campuses. Compare notes with other students in the same situation as you and ask them why they are applying to their schools. Talk to older friends/siblings in college about their search process, and see if you can spend some time with them (even sleepover) on campus. This process is tough, I admit, but it can be really enjoyable too!

For more articles and advice, explore our College Search Process section!

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About Phoebe Bain

Phoebe is a student at the College of William & Mary. She's an avid writer, reader, runner, ukulele player, and user of the passive voice. Her favorite show is How I Met Your Mother, and she loves how giraffes look when they sleep.


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