How to Start Your College Search

With almost 2,300 public and private (nonprofit) 4-year colleges in the U.S., how do you even start your college search? Don’t let the enormity of the task deter you. Here are some suggestions to help you initiate the process and keep it going.

To get started, set aside an hour in your schedule every weekend for “college research.” Block out the time and make yourself sit in front of the computer (or grab your phone) to just start looking at colleges. Commit the time and take the first step to get the process moving. Once you actually looked at a few colleges, start setting goals on what you want to accomplish during each “college research hour,” such as finding a potential safety school or ranking your preference for match schools.

Before you start contacting colleges, making college visits, or applying, set up a dedicated email address to keep all of your college-related correspondence in one place for easy access and retrieval (consider giving your parents access so they can help you manage the influx of information). Secure the account to minimize the possibility of hacking (last thing you need is to lose access to the account in the middle of the application season). Be sure to pick a respectable handle; you can’t go wrong with the likes of janedoecollegeapp, jdoecollege, or (use your name or initials).

A shortcut to help you launch your college search: look at the U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings. Let me be clear, I don’t endorse the rankings. But I do believe the rankings, at a minimum, give you a starting point to begin wading through the otherwise unmanageable number of colleges. Use each ranking as someone else’s top-50 or top-100 college list, from which to start your own college research.

There are also other college rankings you can look at, such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Princeton Review Best Colleges (purchase made through this link will generate a commission that helps support the free content on this website!), and Niche College Rankings (there are more, just search “college rankings” online). No matter which ranking you use, remember there is no such thing as an accurate or objective college ranking. They are all arbitrary and should only be used informally.

The U.S. News rankings break up the colleges by type, which allow you to consider the kind of colleges you prefer. Do you want to attend a school with great name recognition (National Universities)? A public university or college (Top Public Schools)? A liberal arts college (National Liberal Arts Colleges)? Some place with good local reputation (Regional Universities or Regional Colleges)? Or a school with a specific program (such as Business or Engineering)?

Other college rankings and lists from U.S. News you may want to review include Freshman Retention Rate, Highest 4-Year Graduation Rates, Most Debt, and Least Debt (keep in mind that the information may be self-reported by the colleges and may not always be up-to-date or accurate).

The U.S. News rankings also provide a fairly comprehensive directory of colleges with basic description and admission statistics, in addition to a large archive of college admissions articles. I want to caution you about the description and statistics on the U.S. News site (and other similar sites) though, as they may not be current or entirely accurate. Always check the college websites directly for the most up-to-date information about admission requirements, academic and other student programs, and tuition.

Once you have a list of potential colleges you may be interested in attending (remember that you need a decent number of match and safety schools, in addition to your reach/dream schools), it’s time to dig a little deeper. Learn about the colleges from students who are already there by browsing resources such as Unigo or Niche. Supplement the crowdsourced opinions with hard facts from trusted sites like BigFuture from The College Board and College Navigator from the U.S. Department of Education.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to review information about admission, majors, programs, and tuition directly from the college websites. If you have specific questions about admission requirements, major requirements, or financial aid or scholarships, be sure to contact the appropriate office at the college to get clarification. For most colleges, the admissions office may have student worker or clerical staff answering the phone. Expect to get conflicting or incorrect information every now and then. Ask for an admission officer if you have very specific questions about admission requirements.

A special note for transfer students … don’t assume you are limited to the UCs or CSUs if you are attending a California community college. For other college options, check out Saddleback College Transfer Center’s list of Private and Out-of-State Colleges and Universities and CCC Transfer Counselor Website’s list of Out of State Colleges and Universities (colleges that accept CSU or IGETC general education are noted). California community college students pursuing an ADT are also guaranteed admission to many California private colleges (member institutions of AICCU) and/or Historically Black Colleges and Universities; go here and look under “Choose Your University” for the current list.

Your college admissions/applications process can only begin when you sit down and start looking at colleges. The sooner you do that, the more time you have to gather information, and the better prepared you will be. Commit one hour TODAY to launch your future!

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Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Melanie Romereply
February 5, 2024 at 3:27 pm

Isn’t the book the Fisk guide to colleges a good tool
for researching colleges?

Ms. Sunreply
February 6, 2024 at 6:33 am
– In reply to: Melanie Rome

That’s a good one too. There are lots of good college guides, many of them available at school/public libraries.

Questions or Comments?