Not sure where to begin your college search? Feeling completely lost and confused?
Well guess what? In my humble opinion, I think that means you are actually one step ahead of the game. Despite all the talk out there about a “college search,” the vast majority of college applicants never truly search for a school themselves. They make a list of colleges their friends like, their parents like, their counselors like, or simply schools they’ve seen on t-shirts or on TV. I was one of these students. I never looked outside of my own backyard, and when I started learning about all the amazing colleges and universities that are out there later on, boy, did I have some regrets.
So, first, pat yourself on the back just for being on the mission to uncover the right college for you. Now, let’s talk about how you can find it.
Step 1: Take an Inventory of Yourself
Ask yourself these questions: What do I like and dislike about my current school? How do I learn best? Do I like to study alone or with a group? Do I like to have personal interactions with my teachers? Do I like socializing in large or small groups? Does climate have a serious impact on me? Do I need to be close to home? Do I like to be involved in a lot of activities? Do I need school spirit? sports? theatre? There are so many questions to ask and lots of resources for self-assessments out there. Here is one that I particularly like. Taking stock of what you want and need will help you know what to look for as you research schools.
Step 2: Establish Your Must-Haves
Take a look at the following list of criteria and determine what your requirements are for each category. Are there any deal-breakers? Are there any you don’t have particularly strong feelings about? Be careful of eliminating anything you aren’t sure about at this point: If you’ve never seen a small liberal arts school before, how do you know you don’t want to go to one? If you don’t know, then make some college visits before you rule anything out.
Curriculum: Have you already decided on a major to pursue? Do you want to make sure you have options? Do you want to have a core curriculum or total freedom? Do you want to double major? Do you want to design your own major?
Location: Is it important for you to be close/far from home? In a certain geographical region or climate?
Size: Small? Medium? Large? Mega? Don’t forget to consider the size of the individual program you are looking at, not just the whole school.
Resources: Do you need specific resources for learning needs or psychological, social, or medical concerns? Desire a strong cultural or ethnic group support network? Want robust internships or research opportunities?
Activities: What types of activities are you interested in participating in in college, both on and off campus? What type of leadership, service, study abroad, etc. opportunities would you like to pursue?
Cost and Financial Aid: How much can you/your family afford to pay for college? What level of financial aid do you need?
Step 3: Research, Explore, and Visit
Once you’ve determined what you are looking for in a college experience, you can begin exploring schools that meet your criteria. College Navigator and College Scorecard are good tools to launch your college search based on the criteria you’ve established. (You can also check out our list of the best free online resources for your college search here!)
Once you’ve developed an exploratory list, lay out a plan for visits. If you don’t have the time or means to visit colleges far away, pick a selection of different types of schools within a day’s drive. Plan out a handful of weekend trips to visit 2 to 4 schools each weekend (any more and they will all start to run together in your mind).
For the schools you can’t visit (and even for the ones you can), do research online, get on mailing lists, visit with the rep when they come to your school, talk to current students and alumni, and go to college fairs. Learn as much as you can!
Step 4: Refine Your List
Once you’ve done your exploration, refine your college list. The length of this list can vary. Some students have three or four schools, others have fifteen. Whatever you do, make sure to cover your bases. You should have a balance of good bets (schools you have more than a 75% chance of getting into), targets (schools you have a 25% to 75% chance of getting into), and reaches (schools you have less than a 25% chance of getting into).
Step 5: Express Your Interest
Now that you know which schools you are interested in, make sure they know it too! Take advantage of opportunities for interviews and meetings with representatives and alumni; get on their mailing list. Even if these contacts don’t seem to lead anywhere, when it comes time for your application, you will be able to check off all sorts of boxes that show your demonstrated interest in the school and your essays will reflect your effort. Go to each school’s website and find the admissions representative who will be reading your application (sometimes this is based on the alphabet or geography, sometimes on other criteria). This person is going to be your contact throughout the admissions process. Definitely don’t pester them, but don’t hesitate to reach out if you have important questions or if you need to follow up with information regarding your application.
Remember, this is YOUR college search! All sorts of people–from your parents to your friends to your teachers–are going to have their own thoughts about it. Listen to them, but don’t be swayed by the opinions of others. If you have a better sense of who you are and what you want in a school, you’ll be much less likely to fall into this trap and far more likely to fall in love with your chosen school once you get there.
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About Kristin Fracchia
Dr. Kristin Fracchia currently focuses on our MCAT and LSAT Prep, but she also has expertise in a wide range of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, and GMAT, as well as college and grad school admissions. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004. She enjoys the agony and bliss of long distance trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.
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