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Starting Your College Search

Starting Your College Search


Most students have a hard time figuring out which colleges to apply to. 

After all, do you just apply to the universities that everyone else around you is applying to?

Or if you’re supposed to find your own colleges – ones based on your own priorities and interests – then how is that supposed to work?

Also, what are your priorities and how are you supposed to figure those out?

Today, we’re going to talk about just how to start your college search from scratch, the factors to consider during your research, and how to build your college list. 

But before we dive in, there a common mistake made during the college search process that I want to address: 


Do not create your college list based just on college tours! 

I’ve had students over the years who come to me for help with their college and supplemental essays. When asked how they came up with their college list, many would say “college tours”. 


College tours DO NOT provide sufficient information about the university!  

There’s simply too much going on in a university’s campus within the academic departments + student life for admissions officers and tour guides to be aware of everything. 

So, if it’s not college tours, then how should you start your search?

Let’s talk. 


Starting Your College Search from Scratch 

Phase 1: The Self Evaluation

Before you start Google-ing universities, talking to guidance counselors, or seeking any kind of external advice, start by making a list of your priorities. 

Ask yourself what matters to you about your college experience. 

It doesn’t have to be career-related if you don’t yet have an idea.  But here are a few other factors to consider: 

Do you want the small, close-knit community or a large campus with hordes of activity going on?

Do you want a quiet atmosphere, or do you want tailgating? A large sports culture? Greek life?

In a large city like New York or Boston or somewhere in the suburbs? 

Any particular academic programs you’re interested in?

Are there any specific hobbies or interests you have that you’d like to continue pursuing in college? 

If you’re stuck, try out the College Fit Quiz to help you get an initial idea. 

It’s not meant to be an end-all-be-all solution, just a preliminary. 

Once you have some idea – even if it’s the size of the university or the location – we can dive into the next part.


Starting Your College Search from Scratch 

Phase 2: The Preliminary Search

Once you have some sort of factor(s) you’re looking for, check out College Board’s Big Future Search

It’ll allow you to filter from a database of 4,000+ 2–4-year institutions. Be sure to only select the filters you genuinely care about and leave all the others blank. Even with a database this large, it’s possible to narrow your options down too far. 


So, choose the filters that matter to you and leave the rest alone. 

Note: At this stage, most students should have College Board accounts thanks to PSAT testing from 8th or 9th grade onwards. Log into your account to save the search results for future reference. That way, you don’t have to rerun the search every single time. 

Plus, if you log in, the college search will also help you figure out your Safety, Target, and Reach universities. 

Another note: Under the “Majors” tab, if you select multiple majors of interest, the website reads it as “and” not “or”. So, if you type in “Graphic Design” as a major, then “Architecture” as another option, the program will look for universities that have both Graphic Design and Architecture as offered majors. 


If your initial search results in 40+ universities, don’t worry. We’re going to talk about how to narrow your results down in the next step. For now, play with the filters – college size, locations, majors, acceptance rate, etc. – so see what your options are. 

Click through the university profiles to see what general information is available and remember to save your search!


Starting Your College Search from Scratch 

Phase 3: The Deep Dive

Okay, so far you’ve figured out a few factors you want in your college experience and have a long – probably 70+ universities – preliminary list in your search. 

Now comes the most important part: narrowing down your search to your core list. 

This step requires research…. a lot of research. 

Before we dive into the areas of research, I want to pause here and say, TAKE NOTES. 

Open up a Google Sheet or create a table on Sheets and write down everything of interest. I recommend taking notes online as opposed to on paper for ease of access. 

Your notes will come in handy for potential interviews, supplementals, and should you attend the university, then serve as a guide to your available resources there. Resources that you are already aware of while everyone else is still figuring it out. 

With that said, here’s the core breakdown:

1. Academics: If you know what field(s) you’d like to major in, then investigate what the department has to offer. 

What kinds of classes are a part of that major? What types of careers have the faculty members had? That’ll also help you get an idea for any specialization you might want within a field. Read the faculty profiles in-depth and see if there’s anyone who could serve as a potential mention if you were to attend that university. 

Then, take a look at what the department is up to. Are there any student participation opportunities? If so, what are they? Research opportunities? Performance or showcase options?

Remember, the same major can lead to vastly different experiences across universities. So, do your best to ensure that you’ll like it there. 


2. Career Counseling: If you don’t know what it is that you’d like to study or the career you’d like to explore, then figure out what the university does to help you. 

Who do you have to go to for guidance? 

For most universities, it can be the Career Resource Center. Academic advising may also help you out but in the end, it may be a mixture of multiple different resources. Keep in mind that every university operates differently, and some may not have the resources available.


3. Career Center: In addition to helping you figure out what it is that you’d like to study, career centers can help you with the transition from full-time student to workforce. 

But of course, the resources vary by university so look into what’s available. 

Here’s a sample from the University of Miami:

Does the career center help with resumes and cover letters? Most do. 

How about mock interviews?

Does the career center have its own job & internship database for students?

Bi-annual career fairs? Mentoring programs? 


4. Academic Support: Are there tutoring & writing centers on campus? Are they paid or free? 

Most universities will have free tutoring available for the core classes, ones that the majority of students have to take. However, as you specialize in your field, you may need to create your own study groups.


5. Programs of Interest

  • Study Abroad: Most universities have some sort of study abroad program but is it one you want?

Would you be taking classes on interest? Will those classes meet the requirements of the degree? 

  • Co-ops:  Co-ops aka cooperative education programs allow students to take a semester (or more, depending on the university’s program design) off to work in the field of their study. Job placements are found by the universities and students work full-time for a salary. Co-ops are a great way to explore various careers to determine which direction a student may want to go in. 

Note that if you take too many co-ops, you may delay your graduation by a semester or more, however you would be walking out with job experience, so it’s up to you to determine if the trade-off is worth it. 

  • Honors College: Honors Colleges are great for high-achieving students. The colleges allow students special mentoring opportunities, classes/research opportunities and even dorms! 

Of course, each university’s program works differently, but it may be worth looking into. 

  • ROTC: Interested in joining the military as an officer? 

Or having the military pay for your medical school education or advanced degrees in exchange for certain years of service?

Then see if the university offers an ROTC program. 

  • Mentoring Programs: A lot of universities will have programs for first-generation or minority students, but are there other mentoring programs available as well? 
  • Student organizations: Interested in the Greek life? Intramural sports? Ping-pong team? 

Does the university have what you’re looking for or something cooler?

  • Mental Health/Disabilities Facilities: The number teens (and adults) diagnosed with depression and anxiety has been increasing, so look into what resources and accommodations the university has available for students.

There are many, many more programs that could be relevant to you, but you’ll never know until you dive deeper into just what the universities have to offer. So, take your time and do you research.

And if you find something neat, please let us know! With over 2000+ 4-year universities out there, it’s difficult to know everything and I’m curious as to the quirky and helpful programs out there. So, please share your findings! 

Overall, the research process can take fair amount of time – about 1-2 hours per university, so the earlier you start, the better.

Keep in mind that this is research you want to do prior to scheduling college tours to minimize wasting time and money on universities that are not a good fit for you. 

Instead, create your list of researched universities and use college tours as your final filter. 

Check out this post about Navigating College Tours for more info about how to schedule your tours and what you should look for while on campus. 



Honestly, the number can vary based on the acceptance levels of the universities you’re applying to. On average, students apply to anywhere from 8-12 universities, but I have known students who apply to more or less. 

Here’s a breakdown that may help: 

Safety Schools should have an acceptance rate >55%

Target Schools could have an acceptance rate of 20%-55%

Reach universities have low acceptance rates with <20%. 

If the majority of the universities you’re interested in have acceptance rates of >55%, then you may not need to apply to as many. 

Other factors to consider when designing your college list: Your GPA & SAT/ACT scores. 

The acceptance rates we just mentioned are for students who fall into the numerical range that the university is looking for. If your numbers are too low – or at least lower than the university’s preferred range – your chances of acceptance drop. 

So, be sure to take that into account. 

As for how to figure out what GPA and SAT/ACT scores the university is looking for? 


Google the name of the university followed by “Admissions Statistics” and locate the page from the university itself. 

Avoid blog posts when it comes to locating numerical info about a university. There are 2,000+ 4-year institutions in our country and the stats change every year, so a blog post may be not up to date. 

Note: These stats pages can also be called Freshmen Class profiles, Class of 202_ Profile, etc. Each university decides what to call its page. 

Once you’ve found the relevant info, put that information on your college list so that you’re always aware of where your GPA and test scores stand with the university. 

And if you want to know more about the standardized testing to figure out your next steps in that department, check out The Digital SAT vs. ACT. 



While starting your college search can seem intimidating at first, breaking it down into bite-sized pieces helps ensure your sanity. Start by asking yourself of the type of university experience you want to have. The life you want for the next 4 years. 

Then conduct your preliminary research followed by a deep dive. Get as much information as possible about the university via online research first and check out the university’s social media pages or do virtual tours to gauge their vibe.

While you want to leave some room for surprises, the categories we talked about above are important, so prioritize them. 

Finally, after you can confidently state that the university seems like a good fit for you, schedule your in-person college tour. That’ll serve as your final filter. 

And if you have any questions or find any cool programs at universities along the way, please share! 

Talk soon,