There are over 2000 four-year colleges in the United States, each with a unique constellation of resources, course offerings, and extracurricular programs. Schools differ in size, location, academic requirements, selectivity, etc. With so many choices, you will need time to explore what is out there and how the options match your interests and needs. Start your research early, and as you make a list of schools to consider, keep your mind open to ones about which you may not have heard much before. Students who focus only on a handful of the most selective or well-known colleges are missing out on the wonderful range of schools that exist and that might be a good fit for them.
It’s also a good idea to discuss with your parents or guardians what is important to you and what you hope to get out of college, so you will all be on the same page by the time you start working on the applications.
Your goal is to create a list of schools about which you are truly excited. By visiting schools, talking with current students, reading viewbooks, and digging into websites, you will figure out why you are excited about each school on your list. The more carefully and thoughtfully you’ve considered each possible college, the stronger your applications to those colleges will be.
There are many resources available to help you with your research. Each college has a website, and current students frequently publish material online about their experiences. If you are able to visit colleges before applying, travel smart. If you only visit a handful of extremely selective, medium-sized research universities, your trip may not reflect the true breadth of schools out there. Instead, you might want to visit a handful of different types of colleges and universities in your area to get a sense of how schools vary and what feels like a good fit. You might be well-served by visiting a small liberal arts college, a small university, and a large public university, for example. If you discover that you like the feel of small liberal arts college versus the larger schools, then you could begin to narrow your search and explore other small liberal arts colleges.
Here are some questions we recommend you try to answer while researching colleges:
- What do you hope to achieve during your years in college?
- What courses and non-academic activities are available? Will they help you expand your horizons?
- What are your career goals? Does the school offer the preparation you will need?
- How far from home do you want to be?
- What kind of setting do you want? Rural, suburban, urban, small town, big city – there are a lot of possibilities to consider!
- What size school appeals to you? What student-to-faculty ratio best suits your style of learning?
- What kind of people are you hoping to meet in college?
- Do the cultural or religious groups that are important to you have a welcoming presence on campus?
- Are scholarships or financial aid policies in place that will make this school affordable?
- What kind of campus jobs are available?
- What percent of students are admitted?
- What academic criteria does this school see in its strongest applicants?
- What kind of personal characteristics make for a good fit at this school?
- Am I applying to schools with a range of selectivity?