How to Start Your College Search

With 3,000+ 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 (or, worse, put it off). Here are some suggestions to help you initiate the process and keep it going.

First, 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 and give your parents access (they are more likely to remember to check the spam/junk folder than you are; if not, you better remember). Keep all of your college-related correspondence in one place for easy access and retrieval. 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. 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 Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings, Forbes America’s Top Colleges, Princeton Review Best 381 Colleges (buy the book from Amazon through this link at no extra cost to you and help support this blog!), and MONEY Best Colleges. (There are more, just Google “college ranking.”) No matter which rankings you use, remember that there is no such thing as an accurate college ranking. They are all arbitrary and should only be used as a guideline.

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 (Business or Engineering)?

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. (A free U.S. News Path to College guidebook covers the basics of everything you should consider when preparing for and applying to colleges.) I want to caution you about the description and statistics on the U.S. News site 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, it’s time to dig a little deeper. (Remember that you need a decent number of match and safety schools, in addition to your reach/dream schools.) Learn about the colleges from students who are already there by browsing resources such as Niche or Unigo, or get one-on-one advice from current college students through AdmitSee (purchase an AdmitSee service through this link at no extra cost to you and help support this blog!). 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 larger 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 articulation agreements with Private and Out-of-State Colleges and Universities (quite a few accept IGETC).

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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