College research can be an overwhelming task, and it’s not easy to know where to begin. In this article, I’ll help you sort through your options and find your dream college.
If you work through the following four steps, you'll be well on your way to compiling a list of schools that fulfill all your most important criteria:
- Identify your priorities
- Search with an online college finder
- Consider your chances of admission
- Finalize your list
In the next few sections, we'll cover how to research colleges in the a straightforward and effective way.
Step 1: Identify Your Priorities and Preferences
The first step in tackling the college search process involves thinking about what you want out of your college experience. There are some essential qualities that differentiate colleges from one another that you should consider first, such as location, size, cost, and academic programs. You should also contemplate what you want out of the social scene and academic climate at your college. Then, you can search for schools that fit your needs across a variety of different dimensions.
Here's a list of the first four factors you should consider when searching for colleges:
Do you want to be far away or close to home? Attending an in-state school can mean a lower tuition price, but it may stunt your college experience if you continue to rely on your family and old friends. You should also consider whether you’re interested in a rural, urban, or small town college environment. The surrounding area can have a big impact on your happiness and comfort level.
Large and small colleges often have very different vibes. You’re more likely to get personalized attention at small colleges, but they might have fewer resources and less diversity amongst students. You should research each college individually, but there are certain characteristics shared by most large or small colleges that might lead you to prefer one type over the other.
You’re going to college primarily to learn stuff, so academics should be up there on your priority list. Just how serious of an academic environment are you looking for? Do you want a school that focuses on undergraduate teaching or research? What types of programs interest you? If you have any ideas about your potential major, keep that in mind as you search for schools so you can apply to places that offer the best programs for you.
Selectivity and reputation also come into play here. Based on your test scores and GPA, you can predict your admissions chances at different schools (more about this later). It's advantageous for you to attend the most competitive school possible based on your stats. This will provide you with the greatest number of opportunities both in college and in your post-graduate endeavors.
Tuition prices are something you should think about in your college search, but don’t let a high price prevent you from applying if you really love a school. Right now, you should just work on determining whether cost is an issue for you. If so, focus your search on schools that offer generous financial aid and merit scholarships. You can also investigate colleges with no application fees.
College represents a crossroads in many ways.
This list goes into some other factors to think about in your college search that are less fundamental but can still have a really strong influence on your experience.
1. Social Scene
This is a vague term, but you should have some idea of what type of social environment you’re looking for in college. Do you want to be at a party school? Or are you more of a library-all-day-every-day type? Are you at all interested in Greek life? Do you want to be able to go out to bars and clubs? Make sure the environment at the school you choose will be a fun place for you to spend four years.
Is it important to you to have a really nice dorm? Do you want to be able to live off campus at some point? Schools may offer more or less variety in housing, so this is definitely worth considering. Universities located in rural areas may have fewer options for living off campus.
Are you looking for a school with lots of dining options? This is important to consider especially if you have special dietary preferences or requirements. Whatever accommodations you need, make sure the schools you choose have the ability to provide them.
Think of any extracurricular activities you want to pursue in college. If these are priorities for you, you should ensure that any schools that you’re considering have the appropriate resources. Extracurriculars are a huge part of the college experience for most students, and they provide a great social outlet outside of the party scene and classes.
If you're hoping to play a sport in college for fun, you should make sure that anywhere you apply will give you that opportunity. Are you planning to work out in college? If this is a priority for you, look for schools that have high-quality athletic facilities and give students full gym access. Many schools offer exercise classes for students at their gyms, which is a really nice perk.
Spinning is a great workout. Just make sure you never talk about it outside of class, or you will instantly become basic. Seriously, if you react with an acid you'll produce a salt. Sorry I took this way too far.
As you consider these factors, you can continue to customize the priority order to fit your needs. Some of the factors I listed as "secondary" might actually be of primary concern to you. If you feel that something is a priority, don’t discount it just because other things are “supposed” to be more important. You may even be totally indifferent to some of the factors I've listed (for example, "athletics" are a foreign concept to us hardcore nerds). That's fine too! You can choose to ignore these factors in the next step.
Now that you’re armed with your preferences and priorities, it’s time to start your college search for realz.
Step 2: Search for Schools Using an Online College Finder
After you’ve figured out your preferences, the easiest way to find schools that you like is to use an online college finder tool to search based on your criteria.
One option that you might consider initially is College Navigator. You can specify location, size, major program, public or private, tuition, test scores, and more in your search. This tool will give you all the statistics on different schools and help you locate options that seem like the right fit. As you investigate the results of your search, add schools to your “favorites” and compare them side by side to see how they differ. This might eliminate some options based on factors like cost and admissions rate.
A screenshot of the College Navigator search tool
Another site to investigate is Cappex. Cappex is a college matchmaking site where you can fill out a profile and get matched up with schools that align with your preferences. The site provides suggestions for schools that you might like after you complete your profile. It has a pretty complete overview of each school including student reviews and information about campus life that might not be included in the College Navigator statistics. If you find schools that you like, you can add them to your running list and compare them against each other. Cappex also links directly to the application pages for schools on your list of favorites, so you can check out what materials you’re expected to submit.
The "fit meter" that you'll see on every school's page on Cappex. It shows you how well you match up based on your preferences.
There are also a number of other sites you can use at this stage. The link at the beginning of this section will take you to my reviews of the ten best college search websites. Feel free to use whichever one seems most accessible to you!
Step 3: Consider Admissions Chances and Reputation
Once you’ve figured out what you want from a college and have gotten some solid suggestions from search sites, you should step back and take an objective look at your results. It’s important to maintain realistic expectations in the college application process, so you should choose schools where you have reasonable chances of admission.
Though the sites I mentioned above may give you statistics for a schoo's average test scores and GPA, it’s difficult to understand your chances of admission just by looking at statistics. I would recommend that you Google “(name of school) PrepScholar admissions requirements” to access our database pages about each school. Use the tools on these pages to enter in your GPA and SAT scores and calculate your chances of admission.
In general, if your chances are below 30 percent the school qualifies as a reach school. A school with an admissions rate that’s below 15 percent is a reach school for all students regardless of scores and GPA. If all or most of the schools you’re interested in are reach schools, it's time to adjust some of your criteria to allow for other options. Only a third of the colleges where you apply should be reaches.
This is also a good time to check ranking lists like US News and Forbes to see whether the colleges that interest you have decent reputations. However, be careful when considering these rankings! If two schools are within ten or so ranks of each other, there probably isn’t much of a difference in quality between them. Rankings are a tool to be used after you’ve already picked out schools based on other factors. If you’re trying to decide between two schools and the lower ranked school is a much better fit for you, then you should still apply to that one. Rankings are more of a tie-breaker to be used when all other measurements are equal. Prestige can be important because it generally means a more intellectual student community and greater academic opportunities, but you should put your personal goals and priorities above the prestige of the school.
After consulting these resources, you'll end up with a better sense of the quality of your preliminary list of schools. This leads to the next step, making your final college list!
Williams College: The #1 National Liberal Arts College (according to U.S. News)
Step 4: Make a Final List
Now that you’ve gathered all of this information, it’s time to tweak your list of schools so that it has a nice balance of different options. As I mentioned in the previous section, it’s important to have reach schools, but they should only make up about a third of your list. Another third of the schools should be likely options, and the last third should be safety schools.
You can use the same process as above to look up potential likely and safety schools and check your admissions chances. Safety schools are schools where you have at least an 80 percent chance of admission. Likely schools are schools where you have a 30 to 80 percent chance of admission. These can be further divided into “possible” and “probable” options. Possible options will be in the 30-50 percent range, and probable options are between 50 and 80%.
Most students end up applying to around 5-8 colleges in total. Start out with three schools in the reach category, three in the likely category (two probable and one possible), and three in the safety category. Then, if you find that you’re overwhelmed by the application fees or the supplementary essays, you can always cut out 2-3 schools. Be honest about whether you can realistically see yourself attending all of the schools on your list.
You should also do some research to check whether the schools on your list use the Common Application or if they require you to fill out separate applications. This can have a big impact on the time you spend on the process. You might decide to eliminate a school from your list if you’re not super attached to it and it’s the only option that requires an individual application.
Once you’ve balanced your list, begin brainstorming your application essays and deciding which accomplishments and activities you want to highlight for colleges. Read this article about how to create a versatile application for some more tips!
This is what your college list will look like after you get back those acceptance letters!
Now that you know how to do research colleges, you should also be able to put it into practice. Learn more about the application deadlines that will be most critical for you.
Looking to attend a top-notch liberal arts school? Here's a list of the 28 best liberal arts colleges in the country.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.