How to Start Searching for Colleges: A Step-by-Step Guide

how to start the college search process

JakeandLindsay Sherbert via Flickr

So you know you’d like to go to college but where and how to search for colleges? With over 5,000 two and four year colleges and universities across the U.S., it’s difficult to know how to start searching for colleges.

When you first get started, it can be daunting. This is your first experience with attending college. You’re not sure what to expect or even what to look for. This guide on how to start searching for colleges will help to make the process a little less overwhelming.

The most important part of identifying the right college is recognizing at least some of what you want. Sending some time thinking about this before you start researching colleges will help make things easier for you.

Here’s our step-by-step guide on how to search for colleges.

1. What Programs Are You Interested In?

The very first thing step in the college search process is determining what programs you’re interested in. Every college offers a different suite of programs. Moreover, some colleges offer particularly strong programs in certain fields, not so much in others. Attending a college that offers a great Arts program will not help you if Microbiology is your choice of major. Start by identifying your preferred field of study and then look for colleges that offer that program.

Don’t worry if you’re not sure yet what you want to study. Not every high school student is sure about what they want to major in and that’s okay. If you’re not sure what you’d like to do, determine your strengths and interests and pick a general field. What did you excel in and enjoy in high school? These subjects are a good starting point.

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 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.

2. Which Colleges Enroll Students Academically Similar To You?

Colleges can generally be divided into three categories – Match, Reach, and Safety. Every person’s list of match, reach, and safety colleges will look different from everybody else’s.

A match college is one in which your academic credentials match that of the average freshman.  You have a 50% chance of getting admission into a match college on your list.

A reach college is one in which your transcripts are below the average accepted student. Your chances of getting into a reach college on your list is very low. Even if you do manage to get in, you’ll struggle to keep up with your peers.

A safety college is one in which your GPA and test scores exceed those of the average freshman. You have a very high chance of getting into the safety colleges on your list. The downside is these schools won’t challenge you to do your best.

So which one should you choose from the three categories? Ideally, you want to pick a college that will push, but not overwhelm, you.

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. Be realistic about where you’ll likely be accepted, but don’t rule out selective colleges just yet. Consider applying to a couple of “reach” schools that interest you.

3. Compare Cost and Financial Aid

Cost is a huge factor in the college search process. For anyone researching colleges for the first time, the cost of tuition can come as a huge stock. Add to that fees, text books, accommodation, food, and other school supplies, and the total can be dizzying. But, before talking about cost of college, it helps to be familiar with a few terms.

  • “Sticker price” is a school’s published cost of attendance but it’s not necessarily what you’ll pay.
  • “Net price” is how much it actually costs you, as a student, to attend a college. This is after factoring the free scholarships and grants you receive.
  • Compare colleges using net price, not sticker price. There’s a big difference between the two.

One mistake students make is ruling out a college that’s a good fit only because of cost. Take some time to get a better 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.

Private universities understand that many deserving students cannot afford to pay their high tuition fees. But it would be a shame to lose those students. To help make their tuition more affordable, most institutions offer some form of financial aid. This changes everything. Depending on the financial aid you receive, a college that seemed completed out of reach at first may suddenly become your most affordable option.

Colleges may offer scholarships to students who excel in academics, athletics, music, or any other field. Some offer diversity grants for students from particular ethnic backgrounds. If you excel in any particular area, look for colleges that offer scholarships or awards in that field.

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.

4. Consider The Extracurricular Facilities That The College Offers

Academics will take up a large chunk of your time in college. When you’re not attending classes, you’ll be working on individual assignments and group projects. But, not ALL of your time will be spent on coursework. You’ll have plenty of time to participate in your favorite activities. Naturally, you’ll want to look for a college that offers activities that you’re interested in.

As you look at extracurricular activities, you’ll be amazed at the variety that different colleges offer. Whether you you’re an athlete, artist, musician, or sculptor, you’re sure to find a college that supports your interests.

When creating your college shortlist, consider what extracurricular activities each college offers. Do they offer activities that you’re interested in? What is the level at which they offer your preferred activity? For example, if you are a competitive squash player, does the college you’ve chosen have a strong squash team? Or if you’ve love to play the violin in the orchestra, does the school offer that option?

Extracurricular activities may or may not be the deciding factor depending on various other aspects. Choice of major and cost of tuition would take precedence over extracurricular activities. But it is something that you should definitely take into consideration. All other features being equal, this could tip the scales.

5. Think About What You Would Want College To Look Like

It’s important that a school offers the academic programs and extracurricular activities you’re interested in. But there’s something else besides these two factors that’s important too. You also need to feel comfortable wherever you decide to go.

Take a few minutes 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. Skip these questions and answer the others.

  • What is the school size?
  • How many people are in your graduating class? (A few hundred? Ten-thousand?)
  • What appeals to you more – being part of a small cohort with less competition or a large competitive classroom?
  • 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?

Your answers to these questions will give you a pretty good idea of what type of college will make you happy. It will also help you narrow down your list of colleges.

6. Do You Prefer A Rural Campus Or An Urban Campus?

It may not seem like something that you should consider when searching for colleges. But it does make a difference to your whole college experience. You’re going to spend at least four years, maybe more, on that campus. Where it is located does matter.

A rural campus offers a lot in terms of outdoor activities with vast open landscapes nearby. If you love spending time biking, hiking, or exploring the outdoors, a rural campus would be a great option for you. The downside is these campuses generally offer fewer opportunities for internships with larger companies.

An urban campus offers a completely different experience. You’ll get easier access to a variety of cultural experiences from theaters, and concert, to museums and art exhibitions. Then there’s the shopping and nightlife too. The big advantage with urban campuses is you’ll also get more opportunities to intern with larger companies related to your field. This also means you’ll be able to network with experienced professionals who may be able to help you when you graduate. The downside of an urban campus is the lack of outdoor activities.

Neither one is better than the other. The right type of campus for you will depend on your personal preference, your chosen field, and long-term goals.

7. Does Distance From Home Matter?

While discussing campus settings, it’s just as important to give some thought to its distance from home. For some students it doesn’t matter how far from home campus is located as long as it meets the other criteria. Other students may balk at the thought of moving so far away from home. A campus located closer to home means they can visit more often. They feel more comfortable in familiar surroundings of home and community.

Consider whether you want to stay as close to home as possible or whether you’re okay with traveling far away. If distance from home is important to you, make sure this is part of your college search.

8. Attend College Fairs for More Exposure

High schools and even some cities organize college fairs where they invite all types of colleges to speak to their students. Don’t miss these. At a college fair you will be able to speak to representatives from various colleges.

If there’s a college you’re interested, do your research before attending. That way you can ask the representative informed questions.

If there’s a college you haven’t heard of before, stop and find out more about their program, fees, and facilities.

At the end of a college fair, you’ll have collected plenty of pamphlets and literature about a number of schools. That’s great because now you have a lot more information to help you make a more informed decision.

By now you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re looking for in a college. The next step is to solidify your choice.

9. Campus Visits Help to Solidify Your Choice of College

Up until this point, your search for colleges has been more or less theoretical. You’ve gotten ideas from college websites and other review sites. You’ve also read reviews and feedback from students who have attended these colleges. All of this information has helped you eliminate colleges that are definitely not a good match for you. You now have a more manageable shortlist of colleges that are a good match for you. But you need to narrow this down further.

Ideally, you need to send out applications to about 10 colleges. These should be a mix of reach, match, and safety colleges. The best way to narrow down your shortlist is by visiting campuses. It’s not practical to visit all campuses on your shortlist but it would help to visit at least two or three.

A college visit bridges that gap between theory and real life experience. When you visit a campus personally, you’ll get a first-hand feel of the atmosphere on campus.

Do you feel overwhelmed by the large number of students milling about? Or are you excited to be part of this large cohort of students? Would you prefer a smaller, quieter campus? Do the students look happy or do they look stressed?

Attend a class in session – preferably in a program you’re interested in. Pay attention to the teaching style and the interaction between the professor and the students. How did you feel about it?

Go around campus and check out the facilities. Pay special attention to facilities in those extracurricular activities you’re interested in. Do the facilities meet your expectations, or do they fall short?

Before your scheduled campus visit, make sure to do extensive research on the college you’re visiting. Read through their website in detail. Make notes of questions that come up as you read about their various programs, facilities, or fees. This will lay the groundwork for a more fruitful campus visit. While on campus, you can go to the admin office and get your questions answered.

Final Thoughts on How To Start Searching For Colleges

 There’s no right answer to the questions and considerations mentioned above. And, there’s a chance no one college matches all of your specifications. Moreover, there’s no one college that’s right for everyone. Every single student has their own strengths, weakness, and skill sets. Every student also has their own aspirations, ambitions, and long term goals. Think about all of these things when choosing a school that’ll be a good fit for you.

Also consider 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 how to search for colleges, 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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