Step 1: Analyze the academics
First, do you know what you want to study? If you do, begin looking for schools that offer degrees in your field. If you don’t, there’s no reason to freak out! Lots of students enter college without a declared major. What’s more important is coming up with a few ideas and choosing a school that has a good representation of your interests, making it easier for you to decide later. If you’re truly unsure, you should avoid small, specialized colleges—that way you won’t limit your future decisions to a small selection of programs.
Consider the subjects you enjoy studying in school. Which classes truly engage you? Many people slant toward either the humanities or the sciences. Are there areas of study you know you do not want to go into? Perhaps you thrive most in an art class or feel challenged in chemistry. These should be on your radar! Deciding which subjects you are passionate about can eliminate some schools right off the bat.
Another way to think about your college education is to consider your end goal and work backwards. What is your dream job? Find out who some of the top professionals are in that field and learn where they went to school and what they studied. Many guidance centers can help you make connections with industry professionals, even arrange job shadowing or informational interviews.
Step 2: Explore locations
Second, do you know where you want to study? For some students, it’s important to stay close to home—or to get as far away as possible! Perhaps you are the adventurous type, interested in finding the perfect school, regardless of location. Or is there a specific city you love? Large cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston boast dozens of schools to choose from, but settling on a general area will instantly narrow down your options.
If you have a general location nailed down, it’s important to consider the type of campus you want. Are you seeking the experience of the large research university? Do you wish to attend an institution affiliated with a religion? Do athletics matter to you? How about music or theater arts? The atmosphere of campus will likely be an important part of your happiness at school—and the style of your surroundings will have a profound impact on your college career, even if you don’t realize it now. Happy students are more likely to graduate, so spend some time thinking about what makes you happy, and look for schools that provide opportunities that match.
Step 3: Make a list
Next, begin to look at specific colleges. There are plenty of guidebooks and online resources (check out our college search). Be open to schools you haven’t heard of before. Use your parents, guidance counselor, and friends as a sounding board for your ideas, and look into any of their suggestions. They are the ones who know you best!
Once you have a list of preferences and potential schools, check out the colleges’ websites. This should give you information on academic majors, a profile of the student body, and admission requirements. You’ll also find plenty of important information about tuition and financial aid. Make a spreadsheet of these factors to help you stay organized in comparing your possibilities. Create categories like “Tuition,” “Financial Aid,” and “Average High School GPA” to see how the schools stack up. As your research continues, you can add more specific categories (“Athletics,” “Housing,” “Extracurriculars,” etc.) that will become increasingly important as your choices narrow. There are also scholarships and financial aid available to assist you in attending and graduating from the school of your choice, so make sure you do your research for those as well. Be sure to find out what percentage of students graduate and how long it takes the typical undergrad to earn their degree. (The national average is well over four years these days!) All of this information will be helpful in both deciding where to apply and, later, where to attend.
Step 4: Visit campus
Finally, the time has come to embark on the illustrious campus visit. Make a real effort to see every school of interest to you, up close and personal. Often, you’ll know instinctively how you feel about a campus within moments of setting foot on the quad. If you hate it, note the things that really turn you off—you’ll know what to look for at the next school. Take a guided tour and ask questions! You have the opportunity to get first-hand commentary, and it would be a shame to waste it.
If physically visiting isn’t an option, see if you can talk with students or alumni from the school. It’s worth the extra effort to see if any students from your hometown attend(ed) the college, as your transition to campus life may have a very similar vantage point. Many schools offer virtual campus tours on their websites, and social media sites can also offer bits of insight that may seem insignificant now but can assist in your decision down the road.
There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, so picking just one is going to take some work. The most important part of the college search is to remember that it’s an adventure. You’ll be excited, you’ll be stressed, and eventually you’ll be accepted and on your way! Jump into the process with both feet. You will feel pressure from a lot of different directions, but if you have a plan and stay focused, this is one adventure that is sure to be the start of a lifetime of others.