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How to Research Colleges Effectively


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You have probably heard the advice “families need to begin the college search process by doing some research.” What does that mean? With more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the US, it can be hard to know where to begin researching. With so many potential sources the process can seem overwhelming.

Many students and parents miss out on excellent schools and scholarship opportunities because they abandon college research too soon. Too many families limit themselves to colleges they’ve heard of because the process of discovering new schools seems unmanageable.

“Go research schools” is an oversimplification. Your goal is to learn about the programs and options at different schools and match them to your list of college priorities.

There is no right or wrong way to approach the college search process. Read on for a list of the many resources that will help you research your chosen colleges most effectively.

Read Books and Magazines

You can begin your college research at school or your local library with books and magazines. At the library, seek out college guides, which present short profiles of dozens or hundreds of schools. No guide lists every school, and different books present different perspectives, so it can be helpful to reference several sources. Look for magazines like “U.S. News” and others that are known for their annual college rankings. Rankings are not universally accepted (see my thoughts on rankings here), but these periodicals offer quick references for essential data such as admission rate, average SAT scores, student-to-faculty ratio, average class size, and cost.

Search Online Resources

Possibly the easiest way to get a lot of information in a short amount of time is to use the Internet. There are many websites that allow students to search for schools that meet specific criteria. You can search for schools by state, major, type or level of sports, available campus activities, and more. Using sites such as CollegeBoard.com or CollegeXpress.com will help you find the top schools for musical theater or how many Division III schools offer softball.

There are some online resources that provide more speculation and hype than actual information. Some sites offer no more than water-cooler gossip in print. As you surf the Internet for information look for credibility and quality of information.

Keep in mind that some sources may be biased. A college’s brochure won’t describe the school’s problems; in contrast, some websites may reveal only the negative reviews of students who decided to leave the college. Families need to collect facts and balance the information they find.

Scour College Websites

Once you have made a preliminary list of colleges and universities, find out more about each individual school. For this type of research, it is smart to start at the source—the universities’ own websites. College websites present information about academic options, social programs, campus life, and admissions standards. Many schools offer a virtual tour and profiles from current students on their websites.

Visit College Campuses

Nothing tells you more about a college than an official visit. The more time students and parents spend on campus talking to admission officers, students, and faculty, the more information they will have. Campus visits are commonly arranged through the school’s admissions office, and some schools allow families to register online for a campus information session and tour. (For more, see “What to Bring on a College Campus Visit” and “Campus Visit Must Do’s”)

Seek out Expert Advice

Because time is limited, you may want to work with a counselor or independent consultant who has visited numerous colleges. These college admissions experts can help match you, your goals, strengths, and personality to specific schools. A college admission consultant can offer suggestions to help families get started and work through the process. Qualified consultants can be found through the Higher Education Consultant Association.

 

The goal of an effective college search is to learn enough about different schools to make an educated evaluation of your ability to fit in academically and socially.

The ultimate question for any student is, “Will I be happy and successful at this school?” This process takes time. Students and parents should use available resources to learn as much as possible about each school.

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