How to Begin Your College Search
How to Begin Your College Search
David Franklin /

Starting your junior year, decide what you are looking for in a college and take an hour each week to start researching your options. Consider the topics in this section and assess their level of importance to you. Once you know what you are looking for in a school, you can use Student Caffé’s college search engine, online resources, or a guidebook to create a prospective college list. Pick colleges based on their locations, sizes, academic opportunities, extracurricular options, and admissions requirements. Start with a wide range of schools, up to 15 or 20 even. You won’t have to apply to all of them come senior year. Happy hunting!

What do you want to do after you graduate?

Many high school students are primed to attend a four-year institution from the beginning of their education. High school curriculums are designed so that students complete all of the courses that are necessary to get them accepted by a four-year institution, and some high schools even allow students to dual-enroll at local universities so that they can begin to earn college credit. If your parents and grandparents have all earned bachelor’s degrees, you may feel like you need to earn one too. If your parents and grandparents didn’t attend college, you may feel pressured to succeed in high school so that you can be accepted by a four-year institution as a first-generation student. However, attending a four-year institution immediately after graduation, or ever, isn’t for everyone. Similarly, whie there are many alternatives to a four-year college, not every option will be a good fit for you and your goals. Before committing yourself to a path that may not be your dream, explore all of your options.

  • Four-year colleges: These institutions will honor you with a bachelor’s degree in a particular subject after you complete four years of study. Often, students with bachelor’s degrees go on to complete higher degrees (master’s degrees, PhDs), but this isn’t a requirement to find a job. Costs vary widely; public, state universities are generally cheaper than private or out-of-state schools.
  • Community colleges: Community colleges offer two-year and shorter programs for students who either want to transfer to a four-year institution later on or who know what credentials are required for a certain career path. Students may earn an associate’s degree or a certificate in a particular field, which may be enough to immediately enter the job force. Community colleges are generally much less expensive than four-year colleges.
  • Vocational schools: Students who would rather become skilled professionals in particular fields than get the broad education offered at a four-year college may be happiest at a vocational school. If you are certain that you want to enter a particular profession for which you are not required to have a bachelor’s degree, vocational schools can educate you for a fraction of the cost, and often, faster.
  • Online programs and online classes: While you may not be ready to commit to a particular program or aren’t in a position where you can travel to a campus to attend in-person classes, there are options for you to continue your education online. If you know what degree or credential you want to earn, an online program may offer you the flexibility to complete your degree or certificate on your own time. If you want to explore your options without committing to a particular school or program, taking a variety of online classes can help you narrow down your choices.
  • The U.S. military: To enlist in the military, you generally need only to have a high school diploma, be a United States citizen or permanent resident, and be able to pass an aptitude test and a fitness test. The initial enlistment period is generally four years, though it may differ depending on your branch and what you choose. While enlisted, you will earn a steady salary and receive on-the-job training. If, after your initial commitment is up, you would like to leave the military to pursue other options, you can do so with no consequences.
  • Gap years: It’s perfectly okay to not know what you want to do in the future and to take some time to figure it out, as long as you have a plan for your time off. Taking a gap year to work, travel, volunteer, or complete an independent study before you decide where you want to go to school is great! You’ll mature and learn more about what you want to do in the future so that you can make a better decision about your education or career later on.

What are your expectations?

You may have decided that attending a four-year college is your next step after graduation, but it’s important to define why you are going. You will need to have your own reasons besides those expressed by your teachers or parents. “Because it’s expected” isn’t a good enough reason to invest four years of time and money into an education, especially if it’s not something that you really want. When you understand what you hope to gain from the experience, you can begin to identify colleges that provide the resources needed to support your goals. Consider the following questions:

  • Why do you want to go to college? What do you hope to get out of the experience?
  • What are your strengths and abilities? How do you hope to develop them further? Are there particular things about each college that will help enhance your strengths?
  • What excites you about the college experience? What scares you?
  • College is a time to begin anew; what environment will challenge you to become the person you want to be?

What is your ideal location?

Where you are in the country (or abroad) can have a large impact on your happiness and success in college. You might be someone who is prone to seasonal affective disorder, requiring a place with lots of sunshine to feel your best. Perhaps you get overwhelmed in big cities and would feel safer in a small college town. If you want to study art history, maybe you would like to visit museums in a metropolis close to campus. Use these questions to clarify your preferences:

  • How far away from home do you want to be? If you look a little bit farther than your comfort zone (an extra half hour, for example), what other opportunities will open up?
  • Is there any kind of weather that you just can’t stand?
  • How often do you want to visit home and how much will it cost to fly or drive back?
  • Do you want to live in a large city? Rural area? College town?
  • What resources would you like your college town or city to offer off campus?
  • Is location a key factor in your decision or would you prefer to prioritize other components?

What size school is right for you? How big is too big? How small is too small?

Colleges come in all shapes and sizes. Student populations can range from the hundreds to the tens of thousands. If you can, get a feel for what you like by visiting small (fewer than 5,000 students), medium (5,000-15,000), and large campuses (15,000+). Know that student population and class size are often linked to the school’s defined type: liberal arts college or research university. Campus size also determines where students live. At medium and large colleges and universities, many students live off campus, while at small colleges and universities, students live in dorms and the campus stays vibrant and populated, even at night. To help you determine what you prefer, here are the differences between the two:

  • Liberal arts colleges typically have fewer students than research universities. As such, they tend to have smaller class sizes and a lower student to teacher ratio (the number of students divided by the number of teachers). Generally, liberal arts colleges only enroll undergraduate students, but there are exceptions. For this reason, professors, not graduate students, teach all classes. Undergraduates have the opportunity to develop one-on-one relationships with teachers who can write strong letters of recommendation for them in the future. Education is grounded in the arts, humanities, and sciences, and students receive a well-rounded, interdisciplinary education. Liberal arts colleges often do not offer professional programs like engineering, nursing, or pre-med, but students interested in these fields can major in biology, chemistry, or physics with the intention of pursuing a graduate degree.
  • Research universities provide programs for undergraduates, graduates, and doctoral candidates. Because they accommodate more students and offer a wide array of programs, they are typically more diverse than liberal arts colleges. Class sizes vary, but freshmen and sophomores often find themselves in large lectures with 100 or more of their peers. These courses generally break off into smaller discussion groups or labs taught by graduate students. Undergraduates can expect their professors to be leaders in their field, but they may have to work to develop a personal relationship with each professor. They will likely compete with graduate students for research opportunities.
    • Many of these universities do have smaller honors colleges within them that foster close-knit communities of similar students while still providing access to the amenities of a larger university. Honors colleges typically have more rigorous admissions requirements, but you will get to work with professors, take specific honors classes, and have access to opportunities offered only to honors students (study abroad, scholarships, research opportunities, and honors housing, among others).
    • When considering the overall size of a research institution, it may be best to leave graduate students out of the count. As an undergraduate, you won’t have much interaction with graduate students (unless they are teaching assistants in your classes) and your extracurricular activities, classes, major, and friends are going to be made up of your fellow undergraduates. Additionally, graduate students generally live off campus. While the University of Louisville had over 22,000 students enrolled in 2017, nearly 6,000 of them were graduate students. The undergraduate population, then, is closer to a mid-sized school than a large school.

Do you have a major in mind?

If you know what you want to study, search for colleges that offer strong programs in your field. Consider purchasing the College Board’s Book of Majors to see a complete list of all the majors in the country and where they are offered. Depending on your major and what you hope to get out of your program, you may be better suited for either a liberal arts college, a research university, or a conservatory or art college. If you have not decided on a major yet (and that’s okay), you will need to make sure that your school has plenty of options from which to choose. It should also have the resources to support you in finding the right path. Transferring is a taxing and expensive endeavor, so it is important to find a school to suit your current and potential needs. Here are some things to consider:

  • Liberal arts programs focus on critical thinking and writing skills. They provide a solid base for students interested in the arts, humanities, and sciences. Smaller class sizes allow students to foster relationships with their professors.
  • Students interested in a professional or vocational program should also look at research universities. Accounting, business, computer science, pre-med, nursing, and engineering students can specialize in career-focused tracks that prepare them for job-required certification programs and exams.
  • Students who have not decided their major will have more programs from which to choose at a research university, but a liberal arts college will give them individualized attention. At a liberal arts school, students must take a broad range of subjects before declaring a major. Without graduate students or research facilities on campus, liberal arts teachers are more likely to take a personal interest in their students’ success and help them identify their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Conservatories and art and design colleges are ideal for students who are confident that they want to pursue a visual or performing art. These schools are unlike other colleges and universities in that their curriculums are tailored to the arts; they offer mainly visual or performing arts classes and a limited number of general education classes. Conservatories and art colleges are highly competitive with a rigorous application process. Interested students would do well to begin their applications early and build their portfolios throughout high school. Consider attending a NACAC Visual and Performing Arts College Fair to discover your options.

What is the school’s credit policy?

If you’ve taken AP classes or participated in an IB program while in high school, it’s possible that prospective colleges will grant you credit for passing the associated tests. If you’re hoping to reduce the number of introductory-level classes or general education classes that you have to take, finding a school that accepts AP and IB test results may save you time or money. Though many schools have a limit to the number of credits that they will accept, earning any at all gives you the chance to try out classes that you may not have had time for otherwise. Check with each institution that you are considering to see what credits they will and will not accept. While one grade on an AP or IB test may get you six credits at one school, you may be required to have a higher grade for credit or given fewer credits at another.

Some schools may also accept CLEP Test scores in exchange for credit or placement out of introductory classes as well. Though CLEP Tests are often taken by returning students, high school students are also eligible to take the tests. The best part about them is that you don’t have to have taken a class to take a test. If you have a working knowledge of the material covered by a certain CLEP Test, the exam fee may pay off, especially if it means that you’ll be able to graduate earlier than expected. Check with your institution to learn about their CLEP policy.

What type of students do you want to surround yourself with?

College is a time to step out of your comfort zone and meet people with different backgrounds than yours. Most students find that the college environment helps them challenge stereotypes and become a more tolerant person. It’s important to branch out to broaden your perception of the world, but it’s also necessary to feel welcomed and supported on campus. When researching schools, consider which of the following may be important to you:

  • Diversity: A school that prides itself on diversity is more than just a melting pot. It’s a place where students learn from their differences and question preconceived notions about race, sex, and socioeconomic level. These schools prepare students for a diversified workforce and challenge them to expand their worldview. A college with a high percentage of minority, low-income, and international students will benefit you personally, creatively, and vocationally regardless of your background. Check a college’s admission profile to see how many minority students enrolled in the school the previous year.
  • Religious affiliation: Many private schools have a religious affiliation, but that does not mean you have to identify with the religion to apply. Some schools see their affiliation as a nod to their founders and history but nothing more. Other colleges may ask students to take a religious studies course, partake in open worship services, or complete service hours each semester. These requirements generally draw more religious students to campus. If you are curious about a school’s policies or the religious affiliation of the student body, reach out to an admissions counselor or ask your campus tour guide.
  • Male to female ratio: If you are looking for a balanced environment, search for schools with as close to a 50:50 ratio as possible. According to an article published by Time, tipping the scales significantly in either direction can lead to a skewed heterosexual dating culture on campus. When women outnumber men significantly, it may be difficult for them to find a monogamous male partner. If you’re more interested in academia than your potential dating pool, you could consider schools with a skewed ratio, or even single-sex institutions.
  • LGBT+ friendliness: Some campuses are more accepting of LGBT+ students than others. If you are looking for tolerance and support, consider the Princeton Review’s 2017 list of the most LGBT+-friendly schools, published by the The Advocate. Also, use the Campus Pride Index’s college search to find LGBT+-friendly campuses by state and region.

Do you have any preferred extracurricular activities?

It’s important to be involved in campus life to meet people who share interests similar to yours. When researching colleges, look for schools that offer extracurricular activities in which you wish to partake. Not all colleges have sororities or fraternities, and some are more socially conscious than others. Here are a few extracurricular areas to consider:

  • Greek life: You can check a school’s statistics to see what percentage of the student body pledges to a sorority or fraternity and what chapters they offer. Sororities and fraternities give students access to a close-knit community of peers, community service projects, housing, an alumni network, and prime social events, but they are not for everyone. If you are not interested in Greek life, you may find that a school with few or no students who pledge may be an easier place to make friends.
  • College sports: If you are an exceptional high school athlete who wants to play Division I or II sports in college, you will need to register with the NCAA Eligibility Center to make sure you meet athletic and academic criteria. You can use their site to search for schools with strong programs. If you are recruited or are visiting schools, here are questions to ask the coaching and administrative staff to find the best program for you. Not interested in playing top tier NCAA sports, but want to continue to compete and stay in shape? Consider Division III schools or those with lots of intramural or club teams.
  • Visual and performing arts: If you want to continue to pursue your visual or performing art, you will need to decide if it will be your primary focus or an extracurricular activity. If you wish to major in a visual or performing art, the top programs in the country are competitive and will ask you to submit a portfolio or audition in person. For those hoping to keep their art alive without making it their major, search for schools with student-led theater companies, radio stations, a cappella groups, improv troupes, artist collectives, film societies, jazz bands, or visual and performing arts courses for non-majors.
  • ROTC: Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) is a college-level program offered by the Army, Air Force, and Navy for students interested in commissioning as an officer in the U.S. military. ROTC programs provide students with the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree while also preparing them for the rigors of military life. Students can attend an ROTC program at many colleges across the nation while receiving significant financial aid, provided they agree to accept a commission and serve in the military after graduation. If you think that you would enjoy the discipline and training associated with an ROTC program, visit this section for more information.
  • Cultural affairs: If you identify with a cultural or ethnic group and want to find students who share your practices, values, or heritage, you can find specific associations, institutes, and cultural centers to suit your needs. Schools with strong cultural studies departments and racially and internationally diverse student bodies are more likely to offer an array of resources to students of all backgrounds.
  • Volunteer programs: If you are a passionate volunteer or someone who hopes to work in the nonprofit sector, you may want to find a campus community that prides itself on community engagement. Use the Washington Monthly’s 2018 report to find the top schools contributing to the “public good.” These schools are ranked based on the number of low-income students they enroll and support, the research they are undertaking for the common good, and their students’ commitment to service.

What’s next?

When you have answers to all of the questions above, you can start making a list of colleges. Knowing what size school you want to attend will help you weed out any that have a much larger or smaller population. If you know you want to play Division II sports, you can automatically stop looking at any Division I or Division III colleges. If you want to participate in a ROTC program, only look at colleges that offer ROTC programs. Once you have a list of 15 or 20 schools, you can start thinking about college fairs and college visits.

  • Figure out what you can afford.
  • Determine which schools are likely to accept you.
  • College fairs are free events offered in the fall and spring by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. If colleges that are on your list are attending your local fair, you should make it a point to go and talk to their representatives. You can ask specific questions and get a feel for the college without having to shell out money for a visit. By talking to a college representative, you’ll likely be able to tell whether you want to keep it on your list or not. Even if none of the colleges you are considering are listed as attending a college fair, you should still attend. You never know what college you’ve never heard of will catch your eye!
  • If you can afford to travel to visit colleges, it’s well worth it. When you’re visiting a college campus, you have the chance to get a feel for the campus, see the students, and interact with the college as a whole. Sign up to take a tour, spend the night in a dorm with a student, and sit in on a couple of classes. If you can find a day to visit that your current school is off but that your prospective institution is in session (think: federal holidays), you’ll get more out of your visit than if you go over the summer or on a weekend.

Page last updated: 05/2019