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Articles / Applying to College / Finding Well-Matched Colleges

Finding Well-Matched Colleges

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 17, 2019
Finding Well-Matched Colleges

Attention high school juniors! In four months or so you're going to transition to being a high school senior. If you're like most high school students, you're probably wondering how this happened so fast. Also, if you're planning to go to college, you no doubt know that your college process will officially begin when you leave for school that first day of senior year.

However, your college process may already be underway. Have you started searching the internet about prospective colleges? Maybe you already have a college or two that stands out in your mind, some that you think may be a good or even great match. If so, that shows that you have been proactive in your thinking about the future.

Today, I thought I would offer you some tips about how to formalize your search for candidate colleges. There are well over 3,000 four-year, degree-granting institutions of higher learning in America, plus there are also some terrific possibilities in other countries, such as Canada and Great Britain. What you need, then, is some kind of tool that can make your search easier and more efficient.

How to Start the List

You may have some “dream" schools in mind already, and maybe your parents have even dropped some not-so-subtle hints about colleges they like for you. If so, your quest for completing your list of colleges to consider is underway, subject to changes, as you learn more about your candidate schools.

However, you might be one of those juniors who hasn't yet put serious thought into the college search process. You may be thinking that summer is the perfect time to start this important phase of your young life. After all, there are likely fewer distractions during the summer months, distractions like school work, SAT or ACT demands, school clubs and related extracurricular activities, to mention just a few. You may be either a procrastinator or a very careful planner. Regardless of which camp into which you fall — advance planner or one who believes later is better than never — you're busy right now with school's requirements.

Maybe you're also conducting a summer job search. It's not too early for that, believe it or not. The level of competition for summer work for high schoolers has become almost as competitive as college admissions. Things are definitely becoming tougher for seasonal work applicants.

If you're a spring-sport athlete, you'll be dealing with practices and games, plus you've got a life, right? I hope so. The (hopefully) not-too-far-off spring weather in a couple months, especially for those of us who are sick of winter these days (!), offers lots of opportunities to get outside and away from thinking about differential equations and the Laws of Thermodynamics.

You'll be amazed at how fast you go from spring to fall. Summers are usually a blur, so start thinking ahead now. Maybe you can do some quality thinking during the summer blur, but human nature being what it is usually sidetracks advanced planning for teenagers. So the challenge is to start thinking as soon as possible about which colleges best suit your higher education needs and which ones will see your application roll in.

Your parents may be willing, if they (and you) have the time, to squeeze in a couple college visits this spring before students leave campus. Visiting a college while the student body is in residence is unquestionably the best time to visit. You'll feel the energy of the students, experience the atmosphere of a “live" college campus and maybe even get to sit in on a class or two. Plus, don't forget those college tours where you get to see how accomplished some people can be at walking backward.

Think About What You Want From College

When you ask yourself what you want from a college, don't be shy. What do you really want? Do you want a school that has a beautiful campus in a secluded part of the country or one that is in the heart of a big city? Are the school's “prestige" (whatever that means) and reputation important to you? Can you define what level of academics you prefer in your chosen area of concentration? How far from home do you want to be?

Will teaching assistants (TAs) instructing some of your classes satisfy you or do you want senior faculty teaching you? How about access to that faculty? Will your school have professors who are approachable in situations beyond office hours? How about student body size? How about the weather?

There are so many considerations. You are the one who should make the call, though. So what are you waiting for? Get out paper and pencil right now and write down what is truly in your heart about college. Even if you have never set foot on a college campus, you may have an ideal stored away in your dreams. Write it down. Over the next few weeks, keep adding to your list.

Eventually, you should have quite a detailed summary of what you want from a college. Then it will be up to you to find some matches for your candidate list that will form the nucleus of your college search. Your research should come from guide books, campus visits, your own honest reactions, PLUS [trumpet fanfare] the internet.

But how can you use the internet to search for colleges? There are so many ways!

Let me tell you about two resources that can make your search easy, especially if you already have an idea about the kinds of things you're looking for in a college. I'm talking about tools that can help you find the very best match. And, as I have said many times, it's all about the match.

You're reading this article, right? That means that you're on the College Confidential site. That also means that you're just a click or two away from CC's advanced college search tool. To give you a quick idea of the preferences you can put into the CC search tool, here's a brief, low-tech overview of those categories:

- Majors

- Location

- State

- Region

- School Type

- Private

- Public

- 4-Year

- 2-Year or less

- Test Scores/GPA
- Admissions Difficulty

- Most Selective

- Very Selective

- Somewhat Selective

- Less Selective

- Open Admission

- Tuition & Fees

- I prefer the cost of tuition to be less than:

- 10k-20k-30k-40k-50k-60k-70k

- School Size

- Small (< 5,000)

- Medium (5,000 - 20,000)

- Large (> 20,000)

- Campus Setting

- Urban

- Suburb

- Small Town

- Rural

- Campus Activities

- Radio

- Newspaper

- Drama

- Band

- Choral Groups

- Sororities

- Fraternities


- Study Abroad

- Student Services

- Counseling Services

- Health Clinic

- Women's Center

- Veteran's Services

- Career Planning Services

- Alumni Networking Opportunities

- ESL Program

Once you have chosen your preferences, you can save or delete your findings. You can also go through the loop multiple times, with different filters, to see what comes out. It's a very flexible and efficient search process. Try it. You'll like it.

If you would like a “second opinion" on your possible candidate schools, you can become familiar with the College Board's college search tool, which is part of its so-called "Big Future" concept. Keep in mind that this is your big future you're working on.

Use the CB's tool to create for a further-refined list of colleges, if you want to. You may find the same schools that CC's search tool revealed or, more likely, you may find additional schools to consider. Be honest about the preferences you enter into the filters on these tools. No one is going to hold you to your list of schools.

If you're obsessive (like I am), along with the names of the schools you find, you may want to write a sentence or two about why they are on your list. Include your rationale as to why they are a good match for you. This will help you later, as you approach application time, to recall what aspects of each school make it worthy to consider.

Let's be honest. If a school on your list has an acceptance rate of less than 30 percent or so, you're going to face tough competition, not to mention schools that accept fewer than 10 percent of applicants. Your preferences and research will help you create a sensible Reach-Ballpark-Safety spread for your list, thus optimizing your chances to enroll at a well-matched school next year. After all, that's the goal.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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