Where Should I Start my College Search?

how to start the college search process

JakeandLindsay Sherbert via Flickr

So you know you want to go to college, but how do you start searching for the right school(s)? The most important part of finding a college where you’ll be happy is recognizing at least some of what you want. As a teenager, it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re looking for in a college. However, spending some time thinking about it now can pay off.

Here’s how to start the college search process:

What programs should your college offer?

  • Look for colleges that offer the programs that interest you
  • If you’re not sure what you want to study, determine your strengths and interests to pick a general field

If you have a career in mind but are unsure about what major you should choose, this guide may help you navigate. Get information from others in the profession–see what they studied and where they went to college.

If you’re not sure what you’d like to do, try to pick a general field of study. What did you excel in and enjoy in high school? These subjects are a good starting point.

If you really don’t know what you want to study, don’t sweat it.  At many schools, “undecided” is the most common major.  Many students decide on a major after taking a requirement that intrigues them.

Some colleges place emphasis on the sciences while others focus on humanities. Knowing what your strengths and interests are can guide your college search.

Which colleges enroll students academically similar to you?

  • Pick a college that will push, but not overwhelm, you
  • Be realistic about where you will likely be accepted, but consider applying to reach colleges

You don’t necessarily want to strive for the “hardest college to get into,” but you should consider whether the college is a good academic fit. You can estimate academic fit by comparing your academic profile to the middle 50 percent of the previous incoming class.

It’s important to keep in mind that your academic profile is the biggest factor in determining where you’ll be accepted. If your GPA, course load, and test scores are significantly below the average incoming class, you’re less likely to get in.

But don’t rule out selective colleges just yet–think about applying to a couple of “reach” schools which interest you.

How important is cost to you?

  • “Sticker price is a college’s published cost of attendance
  • “Net price” is how much it actually costs you, as a student, to attend a college after scholarships and grants
  • Compare colleges using net price, not sticker price

Get an idea for how college prices work. It’s tempting to compare schools by their published costs of attendance (aka sticker price), but keep in mind most students don’t pay the sticker price to go to college. One mistake students make is ruling out private colleges because of cost.

College Raptor’s college search tool estimates a college’s net price–a price closer to what it would actually cost you to attend a college–so that you can get a better idea of what your options are before you apply.

What do you want college to look like?

It’s important that a school offers the programs you’re interested in–but you also need to feel comfortable wherever you decide to go.

Take a second and imagine you’re at your ideal college–now try to answer the questions below. Some of them may not apply or may not matter you–you can skip these ones.

  • How many people are in your graduating class? (A few hundred? Ten-thousand?)
  • Are you in a city, in the country, in between?
  • Do most of the students live off or on-campus?
  • Is the school religious or secular?
  • How diverse is the student body?
  • Are student services like recreation facilities, 24-hour study spaces, counseling, and a health center available and accessible?
  • How important are sports at the college?
  • What region are you in, and how far is this from home?

There’s no right answer to these questions. And, there’s a chance no one college matches all of your specifications. Think about which factors you’re willing to budge on and which you’re not. Keep your answers in mind when you search for colleges–and change them if things change.

Now that you’ve got an idea what you’re looking for, you can use college search tools like College Raptor to see what your options are. Visit colleges’ “prospective students” pages to see what they have to say to students like you. Once you’ve got your list narrowed down, consider a college tour to get a feel for the campus.

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