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Tips: Starting Your College Search

Before you dive in, here are some facts. There are over 3,200 four-year non-profit colleges in the US. Of them, only about 50 are very highly selective, meaning that they accept under 25% of applicants. That leaves a LOT of colleges that accept from 50-80% of applicants! Keep that in mind when you look. Don’t go only with the ones you have heard about.

Searching for the right colleges shouldn’t make you anxious. Be methodical, focus on what is important to you, dare to think outside the box.

When to start? Junior year. If you haven’t already started putting together a college list, second semester of junior year is the best time. Use this time to look around and become familiar with the college landscape.

Try to research one college every week.

How to start?

Step 1: Self-assessment: Ask Yourself Questions

What do you want in a college experience? Do you want to be surrounded by 20,000 other students or do you want a smaller population? Do you like lectures or prefer smaller group seminars and discussions? Is there an academic area that interests you? Do you thrive on pressure and competition, or prefer a more collaborative environment? What part of the country do you want to experience?

Don’t have any idea how to answer these questions? Go visit some colleges!

  • Check out a large state university, see what it is like to be bobbing in a tide of students arguing, discussing, walking from class to class. Do you like the energy, the feeling of that environment?

  • Find a smaller private college, go on a tour, see if you can sit in on a class.

Do a self-assessment survey. There are simple ones: College Board’s Big Future site, Niche, College Greenlight, Naviance. My personal favorite is created by the highly experienced Dr. Steven Antonoff author of the incredibly useful College Match (recommended for all college bound families). Dr. Antonoff’s “Self-Survey for the College Bound” You can answer the survey online, and receive an insightful assessment. There is no cost, and no sales involved.

Check out your school college counseling resources, talk to the college counselor and your guidance counselor.

Step 2: Pick 4 Must Have Items

Put together a list of what aspects are MUST HAVE items for you in the college experience. This is different for every student. What do you want most in your college years? Sort your list into MUST HAVE and WANT TO HAVE. Pick at most 4 of the MUST HAVE items and focus your college search on those! Don’t be surprised if this list changes during your research.

Step 3: Start Your College Search

Now you can get started. When you are looking at schools pay attention to the following:

  • Graduation rate (6 year is what is usually reported) should be over 60%

  • Freshman Retention, (should be close to or over 90%)

  • Percentage of Financial Need Met, if needed.

  • Availability of Merit Aid, if needed.

  • Acceptance Rate (any school with under 25% acceptance is an automatic reach) College Search Resources:

  • High School College Counseling Center

  • College Board’s Big Future College Search

  • Naviance (if available)

  • College Greenlight (first generation, under-represented students, curated list of colleges)

  • Fiske Interactive Online College Search ($20/year subscription)

  • Fiske Guide to Colleges (Paperback, available to purchase or at your local library)

  • Colleges That Change Lives (

  • Niche, Cappex

Step 4: Make a College List

Start small and focus on what is important to you. Make sure you are looking at a range of schools. Your final list should have at a minimum 2 Likely and 3 Target/Possible. For every reach school there should be one likely or target to balance it. Generally, a list of 6-9 schools is adequate.

What does Likely, Target/Possible, Reach mean?


A school with at least 50% plus acceptance rate, where your grades and test scores (if you have them) are above the middle 50% of enrolled students.


A school where your grades and test scores fall within the middle 50% of enrolled students


By definition, any school with a below 25% acceptance rate. A school where you grades are below the middle 50% of enrolled students.


Any school with under 10% acceptance rate (e.g. Stanford, Princeton, Brown, U of Chicago)

This information about the GPA and test scores of the middle 50% of enrolled students is available on Big Future, College Scorecard, and the college websites (Freshman profile).


Start a Google Sheet, a notebook, writing on the backs of your binders. Keep track of things you liked and disliked about schools. They will all merge, so make notes! Highlight things that are important to you. Create a three-column list:

  1. Column 1: Schools to Research

  2. Column 2: Schools I Like

  3. Column 3: Schools I Don’t Like

Final Tips:

Try not to listen to your parents, friends, or uncle (although your aunt may have a few good ideas). Listen to yourself and what is important to you. This is your college search, your college adventure. What was a great school for someone else might not be the school you are looking for.

Final word of wisdom, where you go to college is not as important as what you do when you get there.

If you have questions or would like some help, don't hesitate to contact me:

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