College research engines are the best-kept secret of the 21st century college applicant. Virtually no one I know used one, yet they are incredible tools that can help guide you through the massive labyrinth that is university research. The only problem is—which one? This post was created to help you figure out just that.
Keep in mind, however, that many of these websites have functions beyond simply matching students to colleges (like scholarship research, essay review services) and this post is focused only on the match and comparison functions. Also, no one paid me to place their website higher on the list (ha, I wish #collegestudent).
Without further ado, here is an infographic of my top 7 picks for best college research engines, including descriptions of each of the characteristics I rated them on, and followed by a more detailed list of their best attributes.
(Click the infographic to enlarge.)
Top Recommended College Search Engines & Why
1. Cappex: Let me be very candid for a moment and say if I were doing my college research again I would use Cappex. It’s easy to use, and worth wading through the constant promo ads because it has the best financial aid calculator, admissions chances calculator, and % match functions that allow a non-math-savant like me understand the numbers.
2. College Board’s Big Future: If you are completely new the college research process and have no idea where to start, this is the engine for you. It’s probably the best at creating a small (but still broad enough) range of schools based on your SAT/ACT scores. Additionally, it has video explanations for every step of the process, which can help a lot if you aren’t sure how filters affect your search. Plus, because College Board (despite popular belief) has a soul, it’s all free.
3. College Confidential’s SuperMatch: This site is the best known among high school students, and for good reason. It has, by far, the best specific match criteria unavailable on other sites—everything from a conservative/liberal, Greek Life, LGBT-friendliness, the party scene, and disability access. It also is one of the few sites that allows students to ask questions, and actually get answers.
4. Niche College Prowler: On a related note, College Prowler is the best for candid student reviews on every aspect of the school. The at-a-glance college comparison screen is actually a letter-grade report card on the school generated by students. It’s a by-the-students-for-the-students experience.
5. College Insight: This site is all about the numbers. It gives you great at-a-glance comparisons, and allows you to create custom charts of statistics you hand-select. However, its not designed to be a home base of college research and doesn’t allow you to create an account, or save any of your searches.
6. College Data: A good all-around site to use, you can go to this site if none of the other caught your fancy. Its main attraction is that it’s great at ordering your research from your desires in a college, to your chances of getting in, and the prices. The other unique aspect of this site is that the admissions chances calculator includes extracurricular activities (whereas most are either just SAT/ACT, or a combination SAT/ACT and GPA).
7. Zinch: As with the others, Zinch is a great home-base site, but make sure you change your email’s settings because they are a major spammer. The special amazing super power of Zinch is that with a click of a button it can connect you directly with colleges. It allows you to indicate your interest quickly, and request information (note: Cappex also has similar functions).
- CollegeXpress: They have a great blog to help with the entire applications process. It’s super easy to use, and has lots of lists of resources for students with specific interests (like religious universities, athletics teams, or diversity).
- College Navigator: In all honesty, College Navigator is not a pretty site, nor is it easy to use. But it is the only College Research Engine created and maintained by the federal government. If you (or your parent) is worried about the validity of the statistics on these schools, you can always check here.
- Naviance: Many school districts have chosen Naviance as their portal between students and counselors for the college research process. It’s not my favorite website, and to be honest I found it incredibly hard to use, but it is the only one that gives you one account from middle school through senior year in high school. It also has an interest profile and suggested careers, but for the majority of students who have a general idea of what they want to do, I suggest doing the bare minimum in this portal.
- Unigo: While Unigo is highly acclaimed and has some great aspects to it, I found the college matches unhelpful. The entire process is based on your return on investment (which I agree with whole heartedly in theory) and the search criteria drastically changed the resulting colleges. Additionally, they really tried hard to make you buy their Absolute Admit service. I mean, really tried.
These college search engines just didn’t stand out as having something better about them than any of your other options. I would not suggest using them.
Using College Research Engines
Because there are so many research engines, I highly suggest picking one of the best sites and sticking with it for your entire college search process. Creating lists and other notes on paper is fine, but using an online account can simplify your life exponentially when you have a billion things to keep track of during application season. Have a home base that you, and who ever else is helping you, have access to. Again, my recommendation is to choose from Cappex, Big Future, College Confidential, College Data, or Zinch.
That being said, when you are using a match search be careful of narrowing your criteria too specifically. Some criteria in your search matter more than others (SAT scores and location being two of the most heavily weighted) and they can drastically change the results of your search. One important example is College Confidential’s option to search for schools where you would be well above the average student’s SAT scores, in order to be considered more highly for financial aid. When you check this box you get almost a completely different set of schools, even if the rest of your criteria are the same. Similarly with tuition costs, beware of searching only for “affordable” schools, as it might rule out schools you could potentially attend with financial aid. Do several searches looking with different points to get a good range of choices.
Finally, despite the amazingness of these tools (no really, they’re super amazing) don’t let them control your life. Still ask around with trusted family and friends, and keep an open mind about what schools you look into. Technology can only take you so far.
Good luck, and happy searching!