How to start a college search?

Starting a college search can be overwhelming. There are hundreds of colleges around the country. Schools can have a few hundred students to tens of thousands of students. They are in small towns and large cities. Tuition, scholarships and financial aid vary. So where should you start?

A college search engine can be a great tool. Some high schools purchase a program like Naviance for students to use. But there are many free tools available as well. College Board, the people behind the SAT, have a great website called BigFuture (,,, are all sites where you can explore colleges.

Most of the search endings will ask similar questions to try and match you to schools that might be a good fit. They include:

What do you want to study? Its ok not to know but think about what might be some areas of interest. What subjects do you enjoy in high school? What do you enjoy in your spare time? What do you know you don’t want to do? If you have no idea you might consider taking a career inventory. Many high school guidance staff can get access to them for you. They help take your interests and aptitude and provide a list of careers using those skills and interests.

Do you want a large or small school? Again, you may not know until you walk on a campus but start looking at the websites of all different colleges. What do they say that resonates with you? Do you tend to do better when teachers know you and work closely with you or do you prefer to be one of the crowd? Do you want to know everyone’s name or do you want to be more anonymous? Are you looking for big time sports where you get to be a fan, do you still want to play at some level, or are you not interested in athletics?

What type of clubs and activities do you hope to join? Do you want a place that lets non-theater majors perform or where you can sing in a chorus even if not a music major? Do you want to be involved in student government? Is service important to you? Do you want fraternities or sororities? Check out the student life pages of websites to see what they offer.

Will you be living on campus? Take a look at housing options and food options. Do you have any particular dietary needs or preferences you want to make sure you can access?

Who will be teaching you? Will your classes be with faculty who get to know you well or will you likely have graduate students (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–they just tend to graduate so you may not have them ever again). Does the curriculum primarily use lecture style or is it a more engaging format that involves project-based or case-based learning where you get more practical experience.

Is there a core curriculum with classes you have to take? Do they interest you?

How will they help prepare you for your career? Are there required internships? How is the career services office? Do students end up employed after graduation in careers related to their interests (I purposely didn’t say in their field of study because a student might end up with a job they love that uses the skills they gained in college but isn’t directly related to their major).

Start to create a list of schools that interests you. Go to the school’s website and join their mailing list. Visit the school and attend an information session. Talk to your school counselor and see if there are any recent graduates from your high school attending (or who attended but transferred elsewhere). They will be honest with you about their experience.

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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