How to Begin Your College Search

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How to Begin Your College Search

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the start of your college search. With more than 4,000 colleges in the U.S., where do you begin and how do you find one that will be right for you?

All too often the pressure of finding the “right” school makes the process more stressful than it should be. But it’s important not to fall into this kind of thinking. The truth is that there are many schools that can be the “right” school for you. Your college search isn’t about finding that one perfect school but rather a host of schools at which you can thrive.

Use the tips below to help you find schools that will provide a great environment and help you learn, grow, and get the most out of college.


Start with you

Before you start Googling colleges or dive into your thousand-page college guidebook, start with something you already know: yourself. Consider your current interests – both academic and general – as well as any notions of what you may desire during your college experience.

Perhaps you love studying biology and describe yourself as “outdoorsy” or perhaps your favorite high school class was psychology and you want to experience living in a big city. All of these pre-existing interests and preferences will help inform your college search and prevent you from becoming completely overwhelmed as you start.


Sort schools by these common characteristics

The following are common college characteristics you should consider in selecting promising colleges. While you shouldn’t ignore a college’s academic quality, cost, or culture, you may not have a strong opinion on every characteristic listed below. This is perfectly ok. You don’t need to form an opinion just for the sake of your college search. For characteristics such as school size, there are advantages to all of the options, so don’t get hung up if you don’t have a preference. Instead, focus on the characteristics that do matter to you and let these inform your search.


Look for schools at which you’ll be challenged intellectually – after all, this is what college is about, but academics encompass more than just classes and workload. For example, do you prefer learning in small seminars or lectures, working with others, or individually? Colleges vary in their teaching style, so look for the educational atmosphere where you’ll excel.


With college tuition at an all-time high, you can’t ignore the potential cost of your education. Sure, loans don’t sound all that scary right now, but after you graduate, they’ll take on a whole new meaning, and they could affect your quality of life for years to come.

Look for schools whose cost of attendance won’t bury you in debt, but don’t forget that financial aid can make expensive schools more affordable. Talk to your parents or guardians about how your education might be financed and check out these tips on managing the expense of college.   


Culture is a nebulous quality that’s hard to nail down, but it does affect your experience. You can think of culture as the mix of a college’s size, location, traditions, student body, housing, social life, and atmosphere. Instead of analyzing all the myriad items that compose culture for each school, pay attention to the ones that matter to you. For example, would you enjoy attending a school whose student body is passionate about football or art? Do you want to attend a school where most students commute to class or live on campus? How important is joining Greek life to you?


Location contributes to a school’s culture, but students often also have practical considerations when weighing a school’s location. Many students attend college close to where they grew up, but others take college as an opportunity to move away from home. Location often affects cost as well. In-state tuition can help you mitigate the costs of your education, but schools in your area may not have other characteristics you’re looking for. Ask yourself whether you’ll enjoy an urban setting with access to city life, or if you’d thrive more in a small college town in the country. Remember, you’ll be spending four years there!


Size also plays into a college’s culture. At college, do you want to be one among tens of thousands or one among hundreds? Some students enjoy large schools where they’re one among a crowd of endless new faces while others prefer a more intimate setting in which they can get to know their entire graduating class. Larger schools often have more diverse opportunities to get involved on campus, and will have more varied resources for you. Small schools may have fewer choices, but a greater connection to your classmates.


These considerations will help you start sorting through colleges to find those that will provide a great fit and education while not breaking the bank. Again, don’t buy into the myth that there’s only one perfect school for you. Besides, some of your interests and preferences will change throughout college, so what you consider ideal now may be different after a few years in college.

What are you looking for in college? Let us know in the comments.  

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