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Articles / Applying to College / The Right College: Seek And Find

The Right College: Seek And Find

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Aug. 8, 2017

Now that it's August, and the start of school (your senior high school year!) is fast approaching. I want to discuss the most important aspect of your college process: creating the best group of schools for you to apply to. [Apologies for ending that sentence with a preposition!]

So, this blog post addresses the major component of that process: Finding your best-matched college.

This will show you how to compare your academic profile (grades, test scores, rank, etc.) and personal preferences (college size, location, majors offered, etc.) with the huge pool of candidates that appears in the College Board's search tool's database. (I'm using the College Board's search tool here on the eve of the release of College Confidential's new search tool, which is currently in beta testing. Once it is released, I'll have details about it. For now, though, the CB tool will suffice for our purposes.)

This "seek and find" exercise is critically important because establishing the right match between you and prospective colleges is at the center of everything involved with the college admissions process. So, if you have any doubts about which schools should be on your apply-to list, this information will certainly help.

First, you need to become familiar with the College Board's college search tool. It's part of their so-called "Big Future" concept. Keep in mind that this is also your "big future" that we're working on here!

Okay. Go here and take a quick look. You may be thinking, "Okay, Dave, that's cool, but I already have a pretty good idea of which colleges I'm interested in applying to. Why should I be interested in messing with that list?" That's a fair question.

My response would be something along the lines of, "Well, would you pass up a chance to make your list even better?" Much of the value of your current list depends upon the methodology you used to create it.

For example, are some of the schools on your list there because your friends recommended them? Are some on it because you've heard that they are "prestigious" (whatever that means)? Maybe you picked one because one of your parents went there. Others might be on the list because of the weather, football team, your girlfriend goes there, etc.

The point I'm trying to make is that these are all subjective reasons for picking a college. The value of a "scientific" selection process (as much as any search tool can be deemed scientific) is that it helps you become mostly dispassionate and removes, as much as possible, the emotional element from picking college candidates. Trust me; emotions can play a significant role in college selection.

The problem with emotions being part of the college matching process is that it clouds judgment and, in many cases, keeps us from considering possibilities that would otherwise remain hidden. I was tempted to title this post "Hide And Seek: Finding The Right College." There are more good matches for you out there than you know. That's why you need an objective search process working for you. So, on with the show ...

The primary goal is to find the best match(s) between your overall academic, extracurricular (EC), and personal-preference profile and the more than 3,000 four-year, degree-granting colleges out there. Doing that the hard way by using subjective criteria ("My boyfriend goes there," "I hear the food is terrific!" "Their football team is ranked #2, preseason!" etc.) is opening the door to problems down the road.

How many colleges should be on your list? I suggest a minimum of six. However, you can certainly have more, but I strongly advise against going over 10. Considering even 10 can be problematic, although you may be trying to "spread the risk" of being denied across the board. Well, therein lies the core reason for using an objective search tool.

Every year, I see lists of candidate colleges that are heavily, sometimes absurdly, weighted toward ultra-competitive schools. When I see a list like this, with mainly Ivy and elite schools included, it's obvious to me that the prospective applicant put little thought into the matching process and was flying by the seat of his/her pants. Major mistake! Again, the solution is to include a dispassionate search tool in the process.

Now, let's talk about college candidate selection rationale. Why are these schools on your list?

You have to be constantly aware of both matching factors (how you align with academics, preferences, etc.) and your acceptance chances. Let's be honest; if a school on your list has an acceptance rate of less than 30% or so, you're going to face very tough competition. That's not to mention schools that accept fewer than 10% of applicants. Can you say, "HYPSM"?

Your honest thoughts about "Why this college?" 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, regardless of what else happens. The promise of that should be enough to motivate you to use a more objective search process.


A little sidebar here:

Regardless of what your remaining-summer plans involve, though, keep in mind my mantra about college research: "You've got to trod the sod!"

That means that no matter how well you can research a college from "afar" (search tools, guide books, Internet sources, virtual tours, friends' recommendations, etc.), there's nothing that can compare to actually setting foot on campus. Inside your brain (and stomach) is a little mechanism known as "gut feel." This is without doubt the best barometer you will ever have to tell you how a particular school meshes with your expectations, needs, and general favor. Trust me on this.

Enrolling at a college you haven't visited is rolling the dice on your college experience. It's possible that you could shortly find that your un-visited college isn't what you imagined it to be and thoughts of transferring may begin forming in your head. This can lead to many negatives, such as poor academic performance, unhappiness, lost time, lost credits, and -- perhaps most importantly -- lost money.

So, to give you some insights about how to trod college sod, check out one or two of my posts about college visits.


"Yikes, Dave! This is all hard work!" you may be thinking. Well, yes it is. But, as a prospective undergraduate, you have to go through all this only once. Getting just one shot at selecting a college (forget about transferring, which is one of the big negatives I mentioned above) makes your choice -- and the process you use to make it -- all the more crucial.

Yes, I know; this may seem like a big challenge, but it is also a very important challenge. Picking the right colleges to apply to is at the heart of your college process. Therefore, choosing the best matches and confirming that they are, indeed, a good match (visiting) are the two crucial components for your success.

Thus, if you haven't ventured into the deeper waters of creating or refining your list, get with it now. Once school starts, you will hardly blink twice before it's Halloween, and many ED/EA applications are due the next day! Don't let college application deadlines sneak up on you!


Be sure to check out all my articles at College Confidential.

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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