The College Search: Making Sense of the Noise

By Stacey Milton

The college search should be an exciting process for high school juniors. It is a time of exploration and self-discovery, an opportunity to contemplate what they want for themselves over the next several years, personally and professionally. At its best, the college search can be fun and inspiring.

But where do you start? There is an overabundance of information regarding college admissions, and it’s not all created equal. So how do you begin to sift through the brochures, websites and rankings to end up with a reasonable list of “perfect” schools?


Be open-minded.

Remember that “perfect” and “fit” are not one in the same. If a student finds a school that seems to fit like a glove, there are likely several other schools similar enough to fit just as well. It can be dangerous to fall in love with one school above all, so students (and parents) should keep an open mind – don’t be afraid to consider schools that are unfamiliar. The top ten schools according to US News & World Report enroll a combined total of just over 29,000 freshmen. That’s fewer students than what one of these schools will see in their applicant pool. It’s perfectly fine to shoot for the moon, but it’s good to have some grounded options, too.

Look beyond the rankings, and do some research.

For better or worse, there’s a reason why rankings carry so much weight when it comes to learning about different colleges and universities. How else do you whittle down a few thousand options to a manageable list of schools?

Luckily, there are other resources available. There’s the ubiquitous College Board, which can be a good place to start if you want to filter colleges by criteria like size, location, and majors. Chegg and Cappex allow students to create a profile and personalize the college search, compare colleges, and connect with potential schools of interest. To go beyond facts and figures, sites like Unigo offer reviews from current students, and they can also post photos and videos of their campus. And it’s always worth spending some time on a college’s website; many colleges now offer virtual tours and host student blogs. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper – look beyond the admissions site and check out the courses offered by a particular department, upcoming events on campus, or recent undergraduate research projects.

Begin to define what college “fit” means to you.

The college search should be a personal process. The same factors that make a college a good fit for one student could make it a terrible fit for another. It can be helpful to start with the basics: size, location, and region. Beyond that, think about academics, the classroom experience, and what an ideal campus community might look like. What access would students have to research, study abroad, and other experiential opportunities like internships or co-ops? And how much does that matter?

For some students, region and climate will matter greatly; after all, it can be daunting to move from Southern CA to New England. Maybe having access to the great outdoors is important, or being near a large body of water. Size can big piece of the puzzle, too. While the overall size of the college is not always indicative of the classroom experience, it can be a good place to start. Location, and the type of campus, can also have a major impact on the college experience; attending school in a rural area will feel very different from attending a college in the middle of a city.

The availability of certain academic programs will be more important to some students than others. For someone interested in a unique major, the college search may need to first focus on schools that offer a particular degree program. Undecided students may want to explore the resources available for academic advising, the ability to change majors, and overall academic flexibility — how will the school support you in your exploration of a major or career path? If a student is leaning toward the fine arts, think about access to studio or practice space, one-on-one instruction, or the number of annual performances.

For many families, financial aid and scholarship availability will factor into this concept of “fit.” While it’s best not to leave the discussion of cost until admissions decisions return in the spring, do not discount schools just because of the sticker price; private colleges can often be very generous with grant money, and may end up being more affordable than in-state options.

Figure out what you don’t want.

This can be just as helpful as figuring out what you do want. Not into the idea of Greek life? Filter out schools where it’s “Go Greek, or go home!” Does the idea of small seminar courses sound like something out of a nightmare? Focus on larger schools with more lectures and a larger average class size. Maybe, after attending a high school with thousands of other students, a college with fewer than 2,000 students seems way too small. You’ve eliminated close to a thousand schools right there. Refine where you can, and try to be honest with yourself when thinking about an environment that will both support and challenge you in the right ways.

Enlist personal resources.

Advice and input from others can be helpful. Remember that one person’s experience will not be indicative of another’s, but it is still worth asking friends and family about their college years. If possible, contact recent high school graduates and ask about their experience, as they can offer a similar regional perspective. One note of caution: colleges change over time, and even five years can make a big difference when it comes to understanding the current student experience.

Have fun exploring colleges and take some time with each to wonder, “What could my life look like at this school?” There is an element of fantasy involved in thinking about where a student might end up for college, and what that experience could mean for the future. If the college search process begins on a positive note of hope and excitement, the subsequent work needed to make it a reality will feel that much more worthwhile.

Stacey MiltonThe College Search: Making Sense of the Noise