You know to start at the very beginning – it’s a very good place to start. But if you don’t know where the beginning is in a college search process, this article is for you.

To begin with, let’s clear up something important. 

Many students over-worry about finding the perfect school. 

Certainly, you want an excellent college, and absolutely it’s a part of the experience once you’re there to taunt your rivals with spirited chants about how your mascot is better than theirs.

But searching for a school is not a Cinderella’s-prince-with-the-glass-slipper-type scenario. 

When it comes to building your college list, there isn’t one right college. 

There are many spectacular best-fit colleges for you to find. 

The rags to riches part of the Cinderella story can pair wonderfully with a college journey.  And we can definitely help you navigate the difficult economic questions of the college admissions process. But none of this one glass slipper = only one correct answer, stuff. 

Rather than focusing on some imaginary ideal needle in an overwhelming haystack, reset your perspective toward uncovering a handful of hidden gems that can each get you where you desire to go with different excellent opportunities for getting there.

Here’s how:

  • Know what you want to get out of college
  • Utilize the resources you have available to you
  • Leverage helpful college-search tools

Remember, the hardest part of any journey is the first step. 

But you’ve got help. 

So let’s get going.

Reasons To Go To College

Where do you want to go in life?

Who do you want to become?

To search out schools, you need to have specific criteria to search with, like:

  • The culture  
    • Style of learning
    • Size of classrooms
    • Types of current students 
    • Religious affiliations
    • Catalysts for personal growth
  • Who you’ll be learning from
  • Who you’ll be learning with
  • What you can major in
  • What you can do in your free time outside of the classroom
  • The school’s success with job placement, or even % of students who achieve their degrees
  • How much the school helps with financial aid

Spend some time deeply considering your priorities rather than simply applying to whatever school your friends are going to attend. 

You may very well end up choosing to go to college with your friends, but don’t limit your search right off the bat without at least considering all the possibilities. 

How To Look For Colleges

First and foremost, talk to your family about your college prospects and priorities

Your college search and attendance will impact all of you, so include them in the process.

Secondly, you’re going to be tempted to search out college rankings for ideas. Don’t.

Here’s why: 

According to many stats experts – including Malcolm Gladwell in this excellent explanation – the measurements for comparing colleges are flawed and skewed toward the commercial interests of big universities, not the interests of students trying to decide where to apply.

College ranking data is predominantly subjective, highly misleading, and unrelated to how great your education will be or how good of a fit you will be for a particular school.  

Even colleges competing against each other on the international rankings have the same profound problems of perpetuating worldwide reputations rather than real, calculable results.

Let’s look instead at places that are useful for you to map and flesh out your search.

Mine Your Own Resources For College Ideas

You have everything you need to get started, and immediately. 

If you’re scared to start because you don’t feel like you know what you’re doing, that’s completely normal.

No one expects you to be an expert. 

You can do this work efficiently, as long as you stay focused on your own goals.

Start simply and exploit these helpful avenues you already have available:

  • Your email; colleges tend to send out many emails with useful links, dates, and posts on getting into their school.
  • Your snail mail; colleges like to send flyers advertising specific programs you might be interested in.
  • Your high school counselor’s office; their books, brochures, speakers, and relationships with admissions officers can help you out.
  • Talk to friends, family, and mentors you respect and trust to get their insight and ideas. Choose those who know and celebrate what you might enjoy in a college and also what you might have to offer to a college.
  • Invest in a little time with expert college counselors who can guide and assist you (understanding and mastering the college admissions process is their whole job!)

Know What Type Of College You Are Looking For

Secondary schools fall roughly into one of three categories. Which types might fit you best?

  1. National Universities – usually larger classes; often study is divided equally between core curriculum, major requirements, and electives; strong pre-professional programs
  2. Liberal Arts Colleges – broader general education; often close relationships with professors; a big emphasis on critical thinking and communication skills
  3. Specialty Schools – narrower specialized majors; hands-on fieldwork paired with classroom instruction; can be STEM, arts, business, etc.

Keep thinking of the other ways you might want to compare colleges.

Aim To Consider A Wide Range Of Colleges  

This is where we talk about sprinkling admissions probability into the mix of things to think about. 

Do not confuse this with a school’s acceptance rate or a reflection of your worth. 

What this refers to is: Do you think the school will be as excited about you as you are about them?

Think of it like dating. 

Do you want to ask out someone who is likely to say yes? Or are you only interested in someone that everyone else wants to ask out but is likely to say no to you?

Exclusivity and other people’s attractions may have an effect on our perspective, but such things should not be the primary determining factor. 

Try to realistically place schools in one of three categories so that you can have a large number of options in that sweet middle range between the extremes of “safety schools” or “famous schools” you got peer pressured into wanting.

  1. Have a target wish list. Don’t restrict your dreaming, or cross something off the list because of location or expense. Don’t weed anything out without looking closely at the school’s common data set and what your stats might be able to say. It may surprise you to know there is an unlimited number of successful pathways to get to where you want to go. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, contact an expert private college counselor for help discovering the path that can work for you.
  2. Have a reach wish list. Don’t limit yourself to what you already know or have overheard. Do your homework and push your expectations. College can and should be a time to grow beyond where you are now.
  3. Have a likely wish list. Include some choices to remind yourself that you are a desirable college candidate. There’s nothing wrong with an unconventional pathway if it gets you to your career goals – and there are many lesser-well-known schools that can easily get you there.

Ways To Research & Discover Colleges

There are a bunch of magnificent tools for researching schools. 

Remember, colleges want you to find them. They want you to want them. 

So they’re going to make it as easy as possible – you just have to do a little reaching out. 

Here are the best tools for finding college options and getting your questions answered about what school you should go to:

As you consider these resources, you might start to get nervous about what you should be looking for, what you should talk to people about. 

If that’s the case, jumpstart some ideas with this article on the best questions to ask college admissions officers

Next Step: Combine Your College Data Into A Spreadsheet

You want to have easily readable, well organized notes on what you’ve found so you don’t have to try and remember all of it. 

For more, here’s an article that can help you with building your college list.

Remember throughout this process to:

  • Be brave & honest with yourself – these are decisions you have to live with
  • Explore your resources and ask for help
  • Keep researching your options – don’t assume you know the facts 
  • Stay focused on your personal priorities and reasons to go to college

If you have questions, we’ll happily answer them. Please feel free to reach out anytime.

Above all, be curious, confident, committed to building a successful future.