The letters come almost every day now. The emails come every hour. There are college nights, city wide info sessions, online webinars, campus prospective invitations. You order the big heavy book from Amazon. You pick up the brochures from the counselor’s office. You search Google. Before you know it, your college list is 30 schools deep and you haven’t even touched the west coast. Starting the college search process can be daunting for any student at any age. How on earth is it possible to filter between the hundreds of options in an effort to discover the elusive “best school”?
(Related: How to Choose Which Colleges to Apply To)
1. Start with the Basics
College is about learning, yes, but it’s also about finding and creating your new home. For many students, going away to college is an exciting opportunity to experience new things. Or, for some students, college is about finding a comfortable environment that will allow them to grow socially and academically. What matters to you?
Do you want to live in a big city or a small town? Do you prefer a large campus or a relatively small one? A diverse community or a specific one? In what part of the country do you want to live?
These are some of the basic questions that will help you narrow down the vast field of choices. By focusing on what you do want instead of what you don’t want, you’ll already be taking active steps toward cultivating a list more in line with your needs and desires. Start with the basics and then work your way down from there.
(An additional resource that helps filter through some of the bigger questions can be found on College Board’s website.)
2. Look Beyond the Website
While websites are a great resource for kicking things off and getting started, be sure not to just rely on appearances! A website is a valuable marketing tool, and one that every college knows how to wield strategically. Of course the campus looks pristine. Of course the students look happy and rested. Of course it looks like everything you imagined Hogwarts would be.
Instead, when you use the website as part of your research, look beyond the images and dig deeply into the information. Look through the department pages dedicated to your prospective major. Learn more about the professors––who they are, what they’ve done, and whether or not they teach undergrads. Researching a school’s website is a great place to start, but should not be your only resource when researching schools.
3. Talk to People Who Know
If there’s a particular school on your mind, do you know anyone who may have gone there? If so, ask! Find a friend, relative, teacher, or coach who went to any of the schools on your list and reach out for the opportunity to learn more. By speaking to someone who knows the school from the ground level, you’ll learn much more information than you could ever get from a website or an online forum.
What’s it like walking to class through piles of snow? How does the school maintain its campus community while remaining geographically spread out? What do you wish could be different? What do you hope will never change?
It’s also important to people across a range of different ages to learn how a school has changed over the years. At this stage in the game, talk to everyone––alums, current students, recent grads, and everyone in between.
4. Follow Your Passions
What excites you? What do you want to study? What are people doing in your chosen field? Pick a few well known figures in your area and learn more about what they’re up to. Do they attend conferences? Do they publish books? Answering these questions will help you determine what is “in” for your particular area of interest, and once you know what to look for, investigate how these things may or may not relate to various schools throughout the country.
Although it may seem like football games and sweatpants, it’s important to remember that many universities exist in order to engage with a larger academic world. Learning what current professors and graduate students are up to is a great way to discover more about various schools.
Is there a professor who just kicked off an exciting new project that you want to learn more about? Or what about a famous author who is now teaching writing classes to freshmen? The possibilities are endless, but by defining and pursuing your passions, you can uncover a lot of opportunities that will help to narrow down your list.
Remember: Best is Relative
This last point is just a final bit of caution: It’s easy to get hung up on the idea of a singular, objective “best” school, where students should instead be focused on the idea of “best for them at the moment.” It can be difficult to weight the differences between School X compared to School Y as distinct from School Z, especially if they are all very similar. Some students start to worry that by choosing School A over School B that they’ll end up missing out on something essential.
However, instead of thinking about college in terms of what you’ll miss out on, try to think about what you’ll gain. If you’ve done your research and you find a school that fits the bill in terms of academics, location, size, opportunities, and community, then chances are, it’s a good fit and you’ll enjoy yourself. Remember, choosing your college list has the potential to be a fun and enriching activity. Make the most of it!