How Do I Begin My College Search?

Some of my students know exactly what they’re looking for in a college; others are deer in the headlights when it’s time to begin the college search. And then there are those who think they know then realize, after visiting a few campuses, that they in fact don’t know either. It’s easy when you have a very specific program you’re seeking. I’ve a BSN candidate this cycle whose list is comprised of schools with the country’s best nursing programs and little regard for access to surfing beaches, Greek Life or multiple dining options which are must-haves for other students.

The quest for the perfect fit college, or the almost perfect fit, can feel daunting. Here are some tips on how to start the process:

Fiske Guide

It’s the first homework assignment I give my students: Buy the book, not the digital version. Then I say: Go shopping! Make a list that includes every school that sounds interesting. That could be 300 colleges, or it could be 3. I advise students to shoot for 50 which I help winnow down to around 8-12 by application time. Next, I encourage students to tour each school either virtually or IRL and then jot down post-tour notes in the margin of their Fiske Guide. Those comments will be wonderful memory-jogs at essay-writing time.

Forget the Rankings

Whether a school is ranked #1 or a #37 doesn’t impact a) whether a student likes the school and b) whether a student will gain admission to that school. Once I’ve worked with a student on their list, they research the curricular offerings as well as the size, demographics, study abroad opportunities, career support, sports, fine arts options, etc. Then, if they want to see how the colleges they like are ranked, fine. It then becomes an addendum to the college search process, not the starting point.

Go Visit

There’s nothing like an in-person campus tour and information session to both excite and disappoint a student. I’ve had students tell me how much they loved a school online and from hearsay but not so much IRL. Many students begin a search saying, “I want a big spirit school like UM” or “My high school is huge, so I want a small college like Pomona.” After visiting even a handful of schools, those same students at the end of the process often have lists comprised of the opposites.

Academic vs Non-Academic Priorities

Parents don’t like this consideration. With its high price tag, college should be all about academics, right? Not for every student. That nursing student? Mostly yes, though even she has regional parameters on where she wants to be. For many students, particularly those who apply Undecided, what happens outside of the classroom is almost as important as what happens inside. That could be the school’s offerings of clubs, sports, arts, socializing, travel options, housing, dining clubs or cooperatives and internship/job support. Ensuring that colleges have a balance of both curricular and extracurricular stimulation can often be overlooked when evaluating a school.

Though diving into the college search can feel overwhelming for both students and parents, developing a strategy is the first step to a manageable college list.

For more information about College Counseling/Essay Coaching, please drop me a line at or give me a holler at 917-863-2424. Also, for “news you can use,” please check out my blog, videos, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And Happy Holidays to All!