Hi Dean! I'm a high school junior, and I met with my guidance counselor already because I am very nervous about applying to colleges next year. She recommended some schools that she said might be good fits for me, but I haven't heard of any of them except for one. I know that I should go visit them but a couple are pretty far away, and I feel like I should know more before planning an expensive trip. So what are good ways to start checking out colleges and deciding which ones to apply to?
The Dean's Answer:
Starting the college selection process can be overwhelming indeed and too many students take the easy way out by considering only colleges that are close to home or that are prestigious and renowned, that friends or siblings or some hot-shot from last year's senior class attended, or maybe a couple places that made it to the NCAA Final Four in March.
You're lucky that you have a guidance counselor who was able to offer you recommendations that apparently aren't all the “Usual Suspects," like the state school in an adjacent town. But I agree that it's hard to have a sense of an institution that you know nothing about. So before you and your family spring for a road trip (or a plane trip!) and for a couple rooms at the Ritz (or the Econo Lodge?), here are a few ways to explore the schools your counselor suggested.
Read about the college in an “anecdotal guidebook" like Princeton Review's Best 381 Colleges, The Fiske Guide to Colleges, or The Insider's Guide to Colleges. These books will provide not only objective info like location, size, gender balance, acceptance rates, etc. but also a subjective sense of what students like or don't like about each school and of who goes there in the first place. (Not every college will be included in such books, but there are a few hundred that are.) Don't take these books as gospel truth but do use them as a good introduction and overview, then look beyond them.
Check out what people are saying about specific schools on the College Confidential college forums.
On some forums, current students or alum have offered to answer questions, so take advantage of this offer. And if you don't see a threadfor the college you want—or if there's not a current student answering questions—feel free to start a new thread or post your question to see who responds (but be wary of answers that come from other high school students who may be as clueless as you are!).
These will be helpful when you are looking to see what majors, sports, activities, (etc.) are offered but, other than that, the Websites start to look a lot alike pretty quickly. You can access the schools websites through a link on top of each college profile in the College Finder.
Talk to anyone you encounter (teachers, coaches, family friends) and ask if they have thoughts for you on the college in question. If you're not pathologically shy, you might even chat up strangers in elevators or supermarkets who are wearing college sweatshirts, tees, and caps to ask about their relationship to the school they're touting (e.g., Current student? Former student? Parent?) I remember a great conversation I once had with a young woman on a playground (she was babysitting not climbing the money bars 😉 ) when I saw “Clarke University" across her chest. It turned out she was a junior at the school and gave me lots of insights into the Clark experience that I'd never have gotten from a Web site or guidebook. (Use good judgment, of course, when you approach strangers!)
More schools are offering virtual tours now, and most include a lot more than video footage of campus. Prospective student can get a pretty good feel for the campus, student body, and may even be able to sit in on a class. To get the most out of a virtual campus tour, be sure to take notes and reach out to the admissions department with any questions.
Finally, if your guidance counselor provided you with a list of colleges to consider but never told you WHY, be sure to ask her (although maybe not this week as she's nagging the seniors finalize their applications). If any of her reasons sound especially compelling, you should bump that school to the top of the list … at least as you start your “research" phase.
When you begin to navigate this maze, keep in mind that the huge number of options out there can make the process seem very confusing, but also know that many of these options are likely to be good ones (with most offering committed teachers, interesting classmates, indoor tracks and swimming pools, buffet breakfasts and make-you-own sundae stations … what's not to like?).
There probably isn't a perfect college, so you just have to hone in on several that feel like the right fits for you.
A version of this article appeared in April 2020. It was updated by CC Editorial in August 2021.
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