How to Begin College Search

Selecting a college is a multi-faceted task. It is more than just a question of public versus private, private versus state school, comparative GPAs, and admissions requirements. If you are a high school sophomore or junior, now is time to begin your college search. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the USA alone. How to find the right college may seem overwhelming­. Rest assured, you can do this! Here are some steps we use with our students to help them start on their college search.

Start Searching for Colleges Early

First and foremost: begin the college search process early, preferably in your sophomore year. Break down your college search into manageable chunks using our guidelines and the questions below. We have found that this search process keeps our students and their families more organized and prevents them from getting overwhelmed and stressed out. Click here to read some kind words from recent students and their parents. 

Commence the Search Process by Asking Yourself, “Who Am I?”

To find a college that suits your style, look inward. How do you learn best: in large lecture-type classes or a more hands-on setting? Is religion an essential factor in your life? Do you live for sports, either as a participant or a spectator? Do you want to be close to home, or a plane ride away? Do you want a quiet, rural setting, or does city life appeal to you? Do you want a super-competitive course of study or one that is more relaxed? Every college has its own unique culture. Try to tune into this concept of culture, and you’ll be able to sort schools into some primary “Maybe,” “Yes,” and “No” groups.

Consider Each College’s Academic Requirements and Rigor

Where are you academically? Look at college GPA requirements. Do you fit in? You want to challenge yourself at college, but you want to be practical too. You might be able to consider highly selective schools, but it is completely fine if you’re not. An academic stretch is good, but remember to keep it real. The goal is to find your best college match. You want to feel good about your studies and your life. No one flourishes amidst unnecessary stress. Your college should match and challenge your academic abilities.

Focus on Financial Considerations and College Costs During Your Search

Where are you financially? You want to be sure your undergraduate degree cost of attendance does not put an undue financial strain on you or your family. There are government loans and grants available. But remember some of this is usually not free money; it has to be paid back, with interest, and grants from the federal government are for the financial neediest of families. Although outside/private scholarships are available, keep in mind that 95% of the money you receive is from the institution/college/university. The smaller private scholarships are a lot of work for little return. I don’t ever deter a family/student from applying for them, but I want them to focus on the generosity of the schools they are applying to as it relates to them and their credentials since that is where the money comes from. Keep in mind that some colleges reduce your financial package by the dollar amount provided by outside scholarships. That means that all of that work will be for nothing. That’s something to keep in mind.

Recognize that a Private College or University May Actually Be Affordable

Don’t feel you have to rule out private schools with a high sticker price for tuition, room, and board and miscellaneous expenses. If you meet their admissions standards and the school feels right to you, you may want to apply, but first begin by researching how generous they are as it relates to your circumstances.

Does your family have financial need? Are you at the upper end of their applicant pool so that merit money may be a possibility? Is it a school that doesn’t provide merit money? If so, and if you have no financial need, will you be expected to pay the full sticker price?

Start this financial analysis process by determining your family’s financial boundaries: what they are willing to, and what they can, put towards your college education. Otherwise, you may find yourself applying to schools that are out of your price range, only to be disappointed that you’re accepted, but can’t afford to go.

Some colleges are very generous and this can lower the cost of attendance substantially, in some cases, making it as low or lower than your state school tuition. While you can’t guarantee that you’ll be awarded a free ride, scholarships, work-study, and other creative financial aid programs can make a too-much-money-to afford private school a reality for you. Never say never, but be sure to include some less pricey schools in your final college search selection list, just in case. Always bear in mind what the net cost will be.

One more thing: scholarships from colleges almost always require that you keep a certain GPA, or participate in sports or other activity. Is that tenable for the next four years for you? That is something you must also consider.

What Am I Interested In Studying and What Colleges Offer that Major?

Some of our students know exactly what they want to study, and can narrow their college choices to schools that offer those specific fields of study. Other students have no clue about what they want to pursue. Don’t worry; both types of students can find a college that is right for them. Keep in mind that 80% of students change their major at least once in their college careers. Most colleges do not require a declared major until the 2nd year. Prerequisites often fill your first year’s college schedule. So don’t sweat if you don’t know what you “want to be when you grow up!” What you want to do at age 17 may change when you’re 19, 20…and beyond. Stay open mentally. Make sure your search includes colleges that offer a variety of studies. College is a great time to expand your horizons, learn new things, and maybe move beyond that straight and narrow path. It’s up to you!

Do your College Research

Start searching with College Navigator to help hone your list. It’s a government website that helps you search by type of study/program, by state, by institution type. It’s a little dated in terms of functionality, but take some time to understand how it works, and you’ll get a good list to start with. We also recommend The Fiske Guide, which provides a thorough synopsis of a college’s personality, student life, academics, and so much more. What appeals to you? What feels right to you? Can you imagine yourself at that particular school? Visit schools virtually through YouTube, Campusreel, Campustours, Youvisit, and via virtual info sessions and college fairs that are offered by many colleges.

Listen to Yourself During the Search Process

Please do not take college admissions advice from friends, or even your parents. Certainly, listen to them, but this is your choice, this is your life. What worked for them may be great for you too, but maybe not. So listen to your team, but make your own decisions. As a college counselor, we listen to you and help guide you to colleges that match your style, abilities, and wishes across a broad spectrum. We have visited over 300+ colleges, so we understand the personality of them and how they can match what you need. It’s a wonderful journey that gives our students a deeper understanding of themselves and helps them gain confidence. It’s a pleasure to see students grow from the college search process.

It’s Go Time!

If you begin your college search early and get yourself and your papers organized now, your junior and senior years will be much less stressful. At Signature College Counseling, we work with our students and their families, ensuring we cover everything throughout your college journey that leaves nothing to chance. Take a look at the colleges our students have been accepted to. You’ll see large and small schools. Private and public. Big-name universities and places you’ve probably never heard of. There is a college for every interest, every pursuit, every ability, every personality. There is a college out there for everyone, including you!

If you’d like some assistance Signature College Counseling is here for you, with a free initial consultation. We meet via Zoom or Facetime to discuss student’s strengths, learning needs, goals, plans, and aspirations appropriate to college placement as well as the family’s needs, concerns, and questions about the college admissions process. No pressure and no-obligation. Click here to connect to us.

Signature College Counseling’s How to Begin the College Search Takeaway Lessons:

• Start early. At Signature College Counseling we begin the college search process the 2nd half of a student’s sophomore year. This will allow you to be proactive and not reactive in your college search
• Use College Navigator and College Data for admissions information, campus life, money matters, graduation and retention rates, tuition, student to faculty ratio and more
• Visit schools virtually through YouTube, Campusreel, Campustours, Youvisit.
• Use The Fiske Guide for a synopsis of a college’s personality, student life, academics and so much more
• Participate in virtual information sessions and college fairs, now being offered by many colleges since in-person tours and information sessions are not available.

Do you have questions about the college admissions process or the above information? Don’t hesitate to contact me at or by phone, 845.551.6946.

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