What Is a College Search? How to Execute Your Ideal College Search

Navigating Your College Search

Written by Jason

It is simple: I envisioned Campus to Career Crossroads helping students have successful outcomes, dreamed up by the students themselves. Our mission at Campus to Career Crossroads is to develop a supportive and individualized partnership with you and your family to help you navigate the complex stages from high school and throughout your career. Let's work together!

Last updated Jun 4, 2023 | Published on Mar 31, 2022

What Is a College Search? How to Execute Your Ideal College Search

You may know you need to get the college search underway, but what is a college search, exactly, and how do you effortlessly move through the steps of the college search process? 

As you probably already know, there is more to the college search process than just applying for admission and going on college visits. A total of 3.7 million students were projected to have graduated from high school in the 2018 – 2019 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). About 19.4 million students attended colleges and universities in fall 2020, including 16.2 million students who attended undergraduate programs. 

UCLA College Campus Visits

That is a lot of college searches! But how do you undergo your ideal college search? Let’s explore the first steps of a college search, the best way to find a college, and what you should consider when looking for a college.

How to Find a College That Matches You

You want to find the “best fit” college for you. But how do you do it? In this section we will work through how to filter colleges, how to conduct a college search, and how to narrow down your search in this section. Keep in mind that much of this should begin as soon as possible but by the junior year for sure. 

How to Filter Colleges

How do you handle the overwhelming process of sorting through the hundreds of colleges available to you? It is important to start to narrow your search down to a handful of colleges you may want to visit. Here are a few ways you can filter colleges from a distance, before you start visiting schools:

  • Decide how far away from home you would like to go. Some students are not comfortable with attending school far away from home. Are you comfortable attending school two hours away? Six hours or more? It is a good starting point to help you narrow your list. 

Distance from Home Matters in a College Search

  • Consider the size of college you prefer to attend. Do you envision yourself attending a large state university, a community college, or a small private liberal arts college (also called a private school)? If you are not sure, that is where a college visit comes in handy. Student enrollment can make or break your college experience. If you feel lost in the crowd of a large state university or dislike the intimacy of a small student body, you may not be as successful as you could be.
  • Look at costs. Look at the costs of several schools that you might be interested in attending. This will help you understand the overarching costs of attending a certain institution and help you put together a plan for paying for college. However, remember that it is possible that you may not know the full range of costs until you apply and get accepted to various colleges. Scholarships may come to light later. For example, if you need to audition for a music scholarship, you may need to do so and then find out if you will get a scholarship for playing the oboe. It is worth considering how you will pay for college. Will you need a lot of student loans in order to attend your dream school? It may be worth it to keep your costs down by attending your second choice. You can arrive at that decision by discussing costs with your family while researching your college options.
  • Take a look at acceptance rates. What does acceptance rate actually mean? College acceptance rates are a ratio. Specifically, it refers to the number of total applicants to accepted students. For example, the college has a 20% acceptance rate if 100 people apply to a college and twenty are accepted. It’s important to consider the acceptance rate because it will help you determine the type of college you may be able to get into. Take a look at the average grade point average and other qualifications necessary to get into various colleges. 
  • View rankings. Take a look at college rankings, which will reveal the selectivity of various colleges. This will indicate how stringent the application process is and quickly reveals the best colleges in the U.S. This might also quickly reveal the schools you want to steer clear from — you might not have any interest in attending elite higher education institutions.
  • Look at graduation rates. College Navigator is a great resource that can help you determine retention rates of colleges and universities, a great indication of how well students like the institutions you are considering. College Navigator also lists the first-year retention rate as well as graduation rates. “First-year retention rate” simply means how often students return to a second year at that school.

Always Know College Graduation Rates

  • Talk to your family. Your family members can offer some great insight into your college search, your interests, and your potential major in college. Getting into the college discussion with your parents and other family members can help you determine some avenues to approach. Ask your family members where they went to college, what they learned, what they liked, did not like, and more. 
  • Make a list. Make a full list of things that are important to you. Write down every single thing you possibly can, even if you think it sounds silly. For example, if you prefer a campus that serves really good food, write it down! Or if you want a campus that has a specific type of professor with a certain area of expertise, put it on your list. Your list may morph and change over the course of time, but you will likely always go back to the items on the list to get down to your deepest wants in a college.

Next, use a college search tool. The start involves gathering information about various colleges. Several websites offer a college search tool that can help you find some schools based on the size of college you prefer, the majors you are interested in, how far you want to be from home and more.

You may think of other important filters that fit your needs. For example, you may want to look into great soccer programs or other specific factors. Campus to Career Crossroads can help you determine the right filters to apply to your college search process.   

How to Conduct a College Search

Once you have filtered some of these surface-level factors such as distance from home, size of the college and taken a look at a college search tool to help you find the right colleges for you, it is time to visit colleges.

You can sign up for a college admission visit by calling the admission office or visit a college’s website to set up your visit. However, it is best to call the admission office so you make sure to get all the details of your visit arranged according to your preferences.

Choose a date and time and ask the admission office how long it will take to get in everything you would like to do on your visit. You might want to: 

  • Take a tour.
  • Talk to a professor.
  • Speak with a coach.
  • Eat lunch on campus.
  • Sit in on a class.
  • Spend the night in the residence halls.
  • Meet with a current student.
  • Meet with a financial aid professional to talk through college costs and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the online form you can fill out to apply for federal student aid.

You should get confirmation materials through text messages, emails, written confirmation via snail mail and/or phone confirmations.

Once you schedule a college visit, you will need to go on college visits. Prior to going on the college visit, write down a list of questions you want to get answered. Going to a college visit prepared helps you communicate your interest to the individuals at the college. 

How Do You Narrow Down Your Search?

When you finish college visits, jot down some notes about each visit you go on. For example, write down “really enjoyed talking with the microbiology professor” or “has the number one Division III soccer program in the country.” Any notes you can remember will be helpful down the road because it is easy to forget certain details after you visit campuses, especially if you visit quite a few. The notes can be very useful when writing your main college essay or supplemental essays. Prospective students often underestimate how well they will be able to remember each college visit from their long list of colleges.

One of the best ways to narrow your search is to take colleges or universities off of your list. For example, you can take the following colleges off your list: Those that do not offer your major, do not offer the extracurricular activities you want, the cost of tuition is too high, the college is not the right size or too far away. These type of specifications can help you take schools off your list.  

Be Sure to Remove Colleges That Do Not Fit Your Criteria

Pro tip: Consider the type of people with whom you want to surround yourself. One of the most important things to remember is that you will be attending college with people — it does not really matter how state-of-the-art a particular science building is. It is more important that you select a college based on the people who will guide you through your years in college.

Ultimately, there is no one way to narrow down your search. Sometimes you know which college fits you best — it may be a feeling you get on campus, the fact that you connect really well with a particular coach or professor, or you know students who attend and really enjoy one of the colleges you have visited.

What Are the First Steps in a College Search?

There is no one “first” step you “should” take when researching colleges. Many high school students take different steps to execute their college search. However, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Attend college fairs. College fairs offer a great opportunity to learn more about several colleges all at once. At a college fair, colleges and universities set up tables with information and allow you to talk to college representatives. You can ask college representatives just about any question you have. Keep in mind that many of the “most popular” colleges have long, long lines! Check out the upcoming list of National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) sponsored college fairs

What is a College Search Without Attending College Fairs

  • Visit with college representatives at your high school. Many high schools host college admissions representatives in the school counselor’s office or in the library where you can visit over your lunch period. Whenever you have a chance to talk to one of these individuals, take it! It gives you a great opportunity to ask the questions you want to ask and allows you to do so without having to travel to a college fair or to a college itself. If you are nervous, check out these ten tips to understand what admissions officers look for in applicants. You can start visiting college reps as early as possible — even freshman year! Why not? Your only roadblock might be getting out of class to attend or getting around the school counselor’s rules. Sometimes, only juniors or seniors will be allowed to attend college visits at your high school. Look into your school’s requirements before you plan to meet with college representatives at your high school.

Your first steps do not even have to be as elaborate as attending college fairs or visiting with college representatives at your high school. It could be as simple as looking at various schools’ athletics websites or starting to talk about your preferences with various family members. Our best advice: Do not wait too long to reach out to us for help in getting started. It is a good idea to reach out to us by your sophomore year in high school.

What Is the Best Way to Find a College?

Everyone finds “their college” in a different way. Your “aha moment” might occur during a college tour, after conversations with current students, or during a great visit with the basketball team. However, the most important way to find a college is ultimately to visit the campus — more than one time, if possible. The more you can get to know the people on a particular campus, the more likely you will be able to determine that a college will meet your needs.

Touring Colleges Will Help You Find the Best Fit

The Benefits of Executing a Well-Organized College Search

Why launch an organized college search at all? You do not want to cobble together a list of colleges and haphazardly visit them and fill out college applications for half of them?

The benefits of making sure you have a plan can help you make the best decision possible. The experts at Campus to Career Crossroads can help you get there and may bring up considerations you have never thought of before, such as the total cost of a bachelor’s degree at various colleges and universities or whether or not to submit test scores and your personalized GPA considerations. (Remember, the college landscape is changing all the time!)

What Are Some Things You Should Consider When Visiting Colleges?

What might you need to consider when visiting colleges? It could be a long list, but you do not have to execute the college search alone. Let Campus to Career Crossroads help you compile your A+ list of colleges and universities. 

There are amazing colleges that can set you up for success at all levels of selectivity — reach, target, and safety colleges. After all, admission rates do not relate to how you may fit into a campus community! Look beyond the U.S. News and World Reports rankings to find some hidden-gem colleges that just may change your life! 

Visiting a wide variety of college campuses is key! One of the biggest mistakes we see at Campus to Career Crossroads is families without college planning guidance only visiting highly selective colleges. Only experiencing colleges that have single-digit admissions rates can make your overall college journey more stressful.

One of the favorite parts of our jobs is recommending colleges, especially ones you may not consider without our guidance. It is rewarding to see clients excited about a college they may not have found on their own and then being successful on campus!

Celebrating Client Success From Their College Search

Most importantly, enjoy your college search. This should be a fun and memorable experience!


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