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There’s no perfect science to finding the right college. You don’t need to think of the college search as a quiz you need to ace; instead, think of it as an exploration and discovery process. Keep an open mind and take your time.

1

Start with a little soul-searching.

To choose a college, you don’t have to have a career plan mapped out or know what your major is going to be. You do not have to have it all figured out! But it does help to do a little soul-searching before you do your college searching. Take some time to contemplate your values, priorities, and expectations when it comes to deciding on a college.

One thing you can do is reflect on what your most valuable experiences were in high school and consider how you expect them to extend to college. For example, maybe your relationships with your teachers made a big difference in how you felt about high school, and you enjoy being able to have conversations, support, and guidance from your teachers. If that’s the case, as you consider colleges, you can pay particular attention to class sizes, student-to-teacher ratios, and how professors typically spend their time outside of class. Since you already know it’s important to you, you can better evaluate the information you gather.

When you evaluate schools, there are a lot of factors you can consider, like size, location, extracurricular activities, popular majors and clubs, financial aid, course offerings, and more. It will be easier to think about all these components if you’ve first spent some time understanding what’s most important to you. So before you dive into your research, take some time to reflect and brainstorm on your own personal values and priorities.

Here are some additional tips to starting your college search.

2

Talk to your high school guidance counselor and teachers.

Think about who best knows you and your skills, strengths, and hopes. Teachers and guidance counselors can help point out schools that may be a good fit. Your guidance counselor should have plenty of resources, tools, and ideas for you to get started in your search. You might also consider consulting family friends, librarians, and college admissions officers. Because there are so many choices out there, the process of researching colleges can feel overwhelming at first. That’s why it can be really helpful to talk it through with people you trust, as well as hear about the tools available from people who know what to look for.

3

Consider your budget.

News headlines about the student debt crisis can make thinking about financing college feel scary and overwhelming. On top of that, it can be tough to envision, four or five years in advance, what kind of student debt you might be able to manage when you graduate college and what it will be like to pay it off. Talk candidly about this with your parents or with the parental figures in your life. One of the best things you can do is to have open and honest conversations about college and money with your family.

You should also be proactive in planning how to finance college. It's never too early to start! Most colleges offer financial aid and scholarships, and you might also qualify for grants, other scholarships, and work-study opportunities. Use ScholarshipAdvisor.com to research your options, and be sure to complete the FAFSA. Find more information about financial aid here.

4

Read, read, read.

Check out curated lists, books, and college websites. Once you start, it becomes easier to sort through the information and begin identifying the qualities of a college that resonate with you. There’s A LOT of information out there, so start early and take your time. Don’t over analyze too much. For each school, some of the factors you’ll probably read about will include:

  • Selectivity
  • Size
  • Class size and student:professor ratio
  • Location and weather
  • Ranking
  • Tuition and aid
  • Student demographics
  • Course offerings
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Popular majors and clubs
  • Greek life
  • Culture
  • Food
  • Housing options
  • Campus resources
  • Study abroad opportunities
  • Graduation rates
  • What most students do after graduation

Start making a list of colleges that are most appealing. Are any of them nearby? If so, schedule a visit earlier rather than later. Putting yourself on a college campus can help you get a clearer picture of what’s important to you and where you can envision yourself attending.

If you can’t make any visits yet, another option is to go to a college fair. There, you’ll be able to speak directly with a representative and/or students from the college who can answer your questions and provide you with more information. Fairs are also a useful way to get in-person information about more than one college at once.

5

Visit—and make the most of those visits.

The best way to get a feel for schools is by going on college visits. Being at a college in person will enable you to learn much more than what you can get from a website, like the campus vibe, student body energy, and general ambiance.

Plan your visit in advance so that you can make the most of it. Decide if you’d like to schedule a tour, attend a class, talk to a particular professor or advisor, meet with students, visit the student union, eat a meal, or check out the dorms. Ask a lot of questions. Pick up a copy of the student newspaper. Explore. You don’t need to cover everything because you can always revisit the school once you’re accepted, but you want to get the most out of your time on campus. If you have an interview with an admissions officer, know that you should interview them at the same time. It’s your opportunity to get your questions answered and determine if this is the place you want to be for the next four years.

6

Listen to your gut.

The number of articles, lists, books, websites, and advice available when it comes to selecting the right college is limitless. It’s important to do your research and make an informed decision, but it’s also valuable to trust your instincts. Once you’ve visited college campuses, you might find you have a strong sense of one place that feels more like home than the others. Trust how you feel. Whichever college you decide to attend, it’s important to remember that no school is 100% perfect. Your college experience is largely what you make it, and you can have a great experience at more than one school. It’s also a time in your life when you’re more empowered than ever to use your independence, skills, and passions to achieve what you want. So trust your instincts, and go from there.