How to Research Colleges that are the Right Fit

By Susan Antlitz

With thousands of four-year colleges in the United States alone, students have an endless list of college options. This sheer number of possibilities can be overwhelming and intimidating. How does one narrow down thousands of schools to a list of 812 schools? This article will provide you with some practical tips and a bunch of resources to help you research effectively and with confidence.

1. Figure out your “Must Haves” (but keep it to a minimum!)

If you have a particular major you hope to pursue or extracurricular activity you really want to continue, make sure the colleges you are applying to offer it. This is most important for technical majors such as engineering, nursing, architecture, etc.

Other must-haves might include preferences related to location or size of college. However, beyond your academic major (if you even know what you want to study), I encourage students to keep their “must-haves” to a minimum at the beginning of their search. It is important to keep an open mind at the start of the research process. It is often through research and visiting colleges that students begin to come up with their “must-have” lists. You don’t know what you don’t know. So, start broad and gradually narrow down your list.

2. Get to know yourself and your preferences.

You might know your “must-haves,” but how do you evaluate all of the other variables in a college search? Below is a sample list of questions to ask yourself and ask of the colleges you are looking at. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will give you a good start.

Academics: 

  • Does it offer the major you are interested in?
  • If you don’t know what you want to study, are there plenty of majors offered that you are excited about choosing from?
  • Are there research opportunities for undergraduates?
  • How easy is it to double major?
  • What kind of study abroad opportunities are offered?
  • Is there an Honors Program?
  • Will the college accept your AP® scores or other college credit?

College Environment:

  • What is the college culture like? Close-knit, competitive, intellectual, lots of school spirit, super progressive, religious, etc?
  • Do students know their professors and seek them out for mentorship/help?
  • Do students live on or off campus?
  • How politically engaged are the students?
  • What are the most popular clubs or activities on campus?

Extracurricular Opportunities: 

  • Does the college offer the activities you hope to be involved in?
  • Are there service and volunteer opportunities outside of campus?
  • What traditions and events are part of campus life?

Location:

  • How far is it from home?
  • How costly will it be for you to travel home on vacations?
  • What is the climate like?
  • Is it in a rural location/small town/large city?

Career Services: 

  • What kinds of internships do students receive?
  • What companies visit campus for recruiting?
  • What kinds of jobs have alumni obtained?
  • How much help do students receive on creating a resume, interview preparation, etc?

Type of Learner: 

  • Are you a self-starter who will be motivated to attend class or do you need a bit more accountability?
  • Will you be able to focus in large classes or are you better off in smaller classes?
  • Do you learn through discussion-based classes, or through lecture?

Now on to the nuts and bolts of researching schools…

3. Online and Print Resources

The internet and social media have made it possible to get an incredibly up close and personal view into colleges. Dig into the vortex of online information about the schools you are interested in. In addition to internet sources, there are some great books you should also consider picking up. Here are some great resources to help start researching:

  1. The Fiske Guide to Colleges: I honestly think every family should own this book! The Fiske college profiles are a quick way to learn something substantial about a college in about a seven-minute read. Each profile lists strong academic programs, highlights various extracurricular offerings, and does an incredible job giving readers insight into the culture and feel of a college. One of my personal favorite things: the overlap schools. Let’s say you are interested in Colgate University. The Fiske profile will give 5-8 schools that Colgate university would consider a peer institution. Flip over to those schools and give their profiles a read through, then check out their overlaps. Before you know it, you have a substantial college list!
  2. CollegeXpress.com: This website contains a wealth of information, but my favorite resource are its hundreds of college lists! Some examples: “Large Universities that Feel Small”, “Colleges for the Aspiring Artist”, “Colleges for the Budding Entrepreneur”, and “Most Beautiful Campuses”. Use these lists to broaden your search and discover schools you’ve never considered applying to.
  3. Colleges That Change Lives: A book and a website. Read through the profiles of these generally smaller, liberal arts colleges. If being known on campus and building strong relationships with professors is a priority to you, check out these colleges.
  4. Social Media: Once you learn about a few schools that interest you, begin following them on social media. Schools often post about their school traditions, campus culture, interesting research done by professors, alumni highlights, etc.
  5. Use an online college search engine such as the College Board’s Big Future College Search or a program provided by your high school such as Scoir, Maia Learning, or Naviance. These programs allow you to refine your college search by variables such as SAT/ACT scores, GPA, location, size, major, etc.

4. Visit Lots of Schools

There is absolutely nothing like stepping foot on a campus to really get a feel for a place. Visiting a school allows you to envision yourself living there. It also helps give you a clearer idea of what kind of school you are interested in and helps clarify some of your presuppositions about “small schools”, “urban schools”, etc.

I’ve had students rule out large state schools, only to visit campus and realize that they loved the campus vibe and culture. Others have ruled out schools based on climate and returned from a visit to let me know it is their top choice.

And just like you should research schools broadly, you should visit broadly. Check out a few large state universities and some small liberal arts colleges. It is also crucial that you vary your search by the college’s selectivity. If you are only visiting the most selective schools in the country, you won’t end up with a very balanced list of colleges that you are excited about.

Begin visiting colleges during your junior year (or earlier if possible). If you are able, go when a college is in session. Sit in on a class, eat in the dining hall, and, if possible, connect with current students.

5. Be Intentional and Proactive

Don’t wait until the fall semester of senior year to begin your research! Give yourself the gift of time to follow leads, create a list, edit your list, visit colleges, change your mind after visiting colleges, and ultimately get to a place where you feel confident about your final list. One of the beautiful things about applying to college is that it is an opportunity to really get to know yourself. But this also takes time. So, start early (and by early, I mean junior year, so not that early!), and take the time to do some self-reflection and focused research so that you can make a thoughtful, educated decision about your college experience.


Susan AntlitzSusan Antlitz spent four years as a high school college guidance counselor at a small private school where she helped build the college guidance program from scratch. After a move brought her to Washington, D.C., she started Antlitz Consulting, where she continues to advise students and families walking through the college selection and admissions process.