Start With a Map
Start by making a list of the colleges within four hours driving distance or flying time from home — the distance most students travel when choosing a college. There are many websites that allow you to search by geography, so pick your state and those nearby and hit “find”! Try the US Dept of Ed College Navigator.
Ask Those You Know
Start asking the people you know and respect if they went to college and where they attended. Ask relatives, friends, teachers, neighbors, members of your religious community, co-workers and others in your life. You may be surprised to learn about colleges you have never heard of that will be great for you to investigate.
This is also a way to learn more about colleges from an insider’s point of view. Just make sure to get more than one opinion before you add or delete any from your list!
Choose by Interests
It is not unreasonable to narrow the field by looking for colleges that have your non-academic interests, whether that is leadership, sports, or hobbies. Use search engines and college web sites to investigate whether you can keep doing the activities you enjoy and find others who share your passion.
Alternately, some students choose to eliminate colleges with activities they dislike, so searching for colleges without sports, fraternities and sororities, or other specific activities is another way to make your list. Big Future from College Board may help you search this way.
Read, then Recycle
Those piles of brochures that you have been throwing in the box in your room or stacking on the kitchen counter will actually help you … if you read them! Yes, it is true that they look a lot alike and that every campus seems to have a cherry tree in bloom … and it doesn’t appear to snow at any colleges in New England … and they all have diverse groups of smiling students … but they can still help narrow your search. Get started by flipping through the pile and recycling the ones which hold no interest for you.
As the stack gets smaller, it will be easier to deal with it — and you’ll feel good about being green as you recycle the ones that didn’t make your cut.
Make the Time
Make a plan, by scheduling an hour on your calendar each week, to sort through the brochures, so that pile doesn’t become too intimidating. If you find something that you like in the brochure, return the card to join the mailing list, or better yet, go to the admissions page of the web site and sign up online. This starts the communication relationship between you and the admission staff that will be so important as the cycle moves forward.
Let Colleges Know You are Interested
Students are often called “stealth visitors” because they read about and research college online, without making themselves known to the colleges. When an application arrives from a student who has had no other contact with the college, their level of interest in the college is a question mark. Don’t get misjudged as a “trophy hunter” — a student who applies to a long list just to see how many colleges they can have on their admitted list. If you are truly interested, be sure and let the college admissions staff know about it.
Visit the college website, go to the admission page and click on the link for “meet the admission staff” or “meet us in your area” to find out who will be reading your application. This is a great contact for you to use to ask questions or find additional resources for your search. You can also save time and money by finding out if an admission counselor will be in your home area for information sessions and interviews. Plus, if you do apply or go to campus for a visit, having some level of “demonstrated” interest will serve you well.
Virtual Visits First
College web sites contain a wealth of information and can help you decide if you want to spend the time and money on a campus visit. Take note of what they choose to highlight on the homepage — guest speakers, major events, student awards, faculty accomplishments, athletic teams, etc. — and click through to find out more. This is where you can begin to judge the campus culture.
Most sites now have student blogs and online chats so that you can connect with real students and get beyond the surface information. Be sure and check out academic major department sites and take the opportunity to email faculty with specific questions.