How to Start Your College Search: Tips for Rising Seniors

Padya Paramita

How to Start Your College Search: Tips for Rising Seniors

You’re finishing up 11th grade and you realize that once summer is over, you have to face one of the toughest semesters for any high schooler. To make sure you have less stress as you balance academics, extracurriculars, college applications, and more, one way to get ahead is to use the summer to get the ball rolling on your college list-building process. While many students have dream schools of your mind, you might not know where else to begin. The question of how to start your college search is common for students and you’ve come to the right place. I’ve gathered a list of tips and factors to help you get started on this journey.

Ask Yourself the Basic But Important Questions

If you search “colleges” on Google, you’ll get overwhelmed with the thousands of options that exist in the United States alone. As a result, you must narrow down your selection criteria when determining how to start your college search. And it starts with you. You will be spending at least four years at your undergraduate institution so it better support your needs. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are your interests?
  • What is your learning style?
  • What are your geographical preferences?
  • What kind of weather will you prefer?
  • What are your career ambitions?
  • What are your academic interests, strengths, and weaknesses?
  • What are your extracurricular interests?
  • What is your financial situation?
  • What kind of school will you thrive in? Big or small? Public or private? Rural or urban? Party or academic-focused?
  • What kind of school will give you what you need (or, put more subtly, what you actually want instead of what you think you want)?
  • Where will you succeed, academically, socially, personally, and professionally?
  • What is your ideal student-to-teacher ratio?
  • Where will you actually get in?

This is a very basic guide that can help you understand your needs. They can also help you go a certain direction with the colleges and universities you look at. Once you have your answer, use resources such as US News, Niche, College Confidential, and College Board to then learn more about schools that fit these descriptions.

Attend College Fairs

Next on how to start your college search: talking to admissions representatives from different schools. College fairs provide you with the chance to talk to representatives from multiple schools under one roof. As a soon-to-be college applicant, this is a chance for you to learn more about available programs and extracurricular opportunities while getting an overview of campus life at various institutions across the country. College fairs can take place at your school, at a local conference center, or even online. Go prepared with a pen, notebook, and a positive attitude, and get ready to introduce yourself and talk to the admissions officers. And most importantly, let them know you’re interested by inquiring about different aspects of the colleges that pique your curiosity. You can find a list of questions to ask at college fairs on our blog

Go on Tours - In Person or Virtually

Often, students wondering “how to start your college search” don’t find the ideal school for them until they’ve gotten a sense of the school by actually visiting the campus. This component might seem random, but many colleges actually track your demonstrated interest based on whether you’ve visited or not. Plus, you might encounter your dream school on a tour—students have often cited the campus visit as the main reason they fell in love with a college. The summer is a great time to plan a road trip across the country and visit colleges surrounding a certain area, such as New England which has hundreds of options for students. If you’re not able to travel, don’t worry! Online platforms such as YouVisit and CampusTours have created incredible interfaces for students to get a sense of campuses right from their computers. Whether you visit in person or online, make sure you make note of academic and extracurricular offerings, sit in on a class if possible, and ask as many questions as you need in order to gauge whether this is the right place for you.

Talk to Friends and Family Members

Sometimes the best way to proceed when wondering how to start your college search is to consult the people you know! You might have friends who are alums of your high school or family members who have attended college. These people can tell you firsthand about their experience and what they thought about their alma mater. They would also be able to tell you—based on your interests and academic profile—whether you’d be a good fit for that school and whether you should consider applying there. Even if they tell you that you wouldn’t that’s a great step in making your list because you will have eliminated an option! 

Talk to Your Guidance Counselor

As you’re wondering how to start your college search, make sure you take advantage of a highly valuable resource that you have in your arsenal—your high school counselor. Ask your counselor different questions so that they can help you formulate your list. Your counselor has insider knowledge of where students from your high school have gone and where students from your grade are applying. Since admissions officers read applications by region, any student applying from your school will be your direct competition. Your counselor can give you a sense of the strengths of those students, as well as direct you towards schools that may not be commonly chosen by your peers. Your counselor will also write you a recommendation letter, so it definitely helps to start the relationship early!

Start Thinking About Balance

As you figure out how to start your college search, remember that you shouldn’t just apply to the Top 10 schools. Other than being very difficult to get into, they might also all not be the best fit for you. As a result, instead of only applying to Ivy Leagues or top 10 colleges, your list should be tiered. 

Colleges on your list will fit into one of three tiers: reach, target, and safety. Reach schools are schools that might be difficult for you to get into because they are extremely selective or because you fall below the average range for enrolled freshmen. These colleges often are what many applicants consider “dream schools,” and are the most competitive. Target schools are those that meet your own numbers—this list of schools is entirely subjective, depending on your GPA and SAT score. Target schools don’t guarantee admission either, as a lot of factors are considered beyond your grades. Don’t take them for granted. Schools are defined as “safety” if your academic credentials are above the average range for admitted freshmen. This doesn’t always mean you’re a shoo-in either, but it’s good to cover your back and keep your options open.

Take your target and safety schools seriously. Safety schools can still be good colleges. They should be chosen based on their ability to provide you with an education that supports your interests and goals. As with any school that you add to your list, you must ensure that you would actually attend the target and safety schools on your list if you’re admitted. While you should certainly have a dream school and be thrilled about the possibility of attending high-ranked colleges, it’s also important to stay realistic about your chances and not be disheartened once you receive your admissions results. Only apply to schools that you feel strongly about attending!

Hopefully, you now have a better sense of how to start your college search. Consider these different factors and if you would like support from Former Admissions Officers and Graduates from top colleges as you wonder which schools best fit you, request a consultation with one of our experts. You’ve got a long journey ahead so it can certainly help to stay on top of things. Best of luck!

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