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Resource CenterCollege Search & SelectionCollege ResearchBeginning Your College Search Process

How Do I Begin My College Search?

With so many college choices available and the wide variety among the institutions that can be found across the United States, it is easy to become overwhelmed.  Let’s face it, given the competition for getting into college, the rising costs of a college education, and the fact that there is not just one college that is right for you, the college search and selection process can be downright scary!

One student may want to study a major offered at only a few universities.  Another may be looking for colleges that are close to home.  Others may be looking for private institutions that are in or near a large urban area.  The task of searching for a college is extremely personal. The key to a successful college search lies in knowing what you are looking for, identifying colleges that offer what you are seeking and selecting one of the institutions that has what you want.

College Search Fundamentals

There are three basic conditions that the colleges that interest you should meet.  If a college meets all three conditions in the list below, it is probably a good choice for you.

1. Does this college offer what I want?  Most prospective students make the mistake of assuming that this means, “Does the college offer the major I think I would like to study?”  While that is an important question, it should not be your main concern at this point.  “Undecided” is a very popular major among first year college students and choosing a major can usually be postponed until your fourth semester in college.  Right now, there are more important questions.

You need info about:

  • the quality and rigor of academic study at the institution,
  • the kind of activities (co- and extra-curricular, as well as social) offered,  
  • the kind of support services (academic advising system, counseling, career planning, safety and security support, etc.) available to undergraduates,
  • the school’s scholarship and financial aid policies and practices,
  • the undergraduate graduation rate (percent of first year students who graduate in 4-5 years with a bachelor’s degree), and
  • other issues specific to your needs and interests.

2. Is the intellectual challenge at this college one I am ready and willing to undertake?  Different colleges offer different levels of academic challenge.   Some are very competitive, and some are less competitive.  You must determine if a particular college offers a challenge that you are both prepared and willing to undertake.  You will not be satisfied if the challenge is either too great or too small.

3. Will I be happy there?  This question is so fundamental that many students forget to ask it.  It is, however, perhaps the most important question.  You must be convinced that you will enjoy the years you will spend at the college.  That is why spending time at the institution’s website, visiting the campus, talking extensively with the school’s admissions officers and current students, etc. are crucial parts of the college search. Can you see yourself attending class, living in the dorms and being involved in campus life at this school?

What to Look for Beyond the Basics

Although some colleges may be similar in some ways, no two colleges are exactly the same.  While the differences may appear subtle, they are very important.  One good way to start the process is by knowing what college characteristics thousands of other students, like yourself, have said are important.  The following list includes some of the more important characteristics named by prospective college applicants:

Academic Programs

Does the college offer the major or majors that interest me?
How competitive and rigorous is the academic environment?

Academic Reputation

How do educators, employers, and alumni view the college’s academic program?


How far away from home is the college?  
Is it located in an urban, suburban or rural area?
How far is it from a major city?  A major interstate highway?  A major airport?

Price and Cost

How expensive is the college (the price)? 
How many students who attend the college receive financial aid and how much aid do they receive? 
What would I be expected to pay (the cost) and how is this determined?


Is the college small, very large or somewhere in between?

Admission Selectivity

Is this college a reach for me or is it one to which I am likely to or might possibly be admitted?
How can I tell when admission to a particular college is simply not a realistic expectation for me, given my academic record?


Does the college have residence halls or other housing options?
Are first year residential students required to live on campus?
Do most students live on campus?

Quality of the Facilities

Are the classrooms and laboratories up to date, properly equipped and well maintained?
Is the housing comfortable and does it have the amenities you want?
What are the dining options and how good is the food?
Is the campus adequately equipped with modern technology?
Is it wireless so that I can use my laptop all over campus?
Can I access the library from my dorm or apartment?

Special Programs

Are there programs and services on campus that interest me (athletics, honors program, study abroad, ROTC, sororities and fraternities, etc.)?

How to Find the Information You Need

Talk to your school counselor about what you are looking for.  Most counselors will be able to give you the names of several colleges that match you interests.  But don’t stop there.  Use our college search to identify colleges that match your list of desired characteristics and provide answers to your questions.  Talk to your parents about what you are looking for in a college (and listen to their advice!).   Visit the campuses if possible, but do a virtual tour of the campus online whether you visit or not.  Try to get a feel for the place to determine if it is a welcoming environment—a place where you feel comfortable.

Based on your research, you will probably refine your list of criteria somewhat and your final search list may look very different from your original one.  This is to be expected.  Recognize that each time you refine it; you will be coming closer to identifying your college options and the schools that can offer what you want, provide you with appropriate intellectual challenges, enrich your life and prepare you for a successful future.


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Don Munce