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Articles / How do I know which colleges to apply to?

April 26, 2021

How do I know which colleges to apply to?

How do I know which colleges to apply to?
Photo by javier trueba on Unsplash

Question: 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?

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:

1. Use a College Guidebook

Read about the college in an "anecdotal guidebook" like Princeton Review's Best 386 Colleges or The Fiske 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.

2. Go to the College Board "Big Future" Website

The College Board's "Big Future" website is an way to access facts and figures such as median test scores and GPA, financial aid awards, etc. You can also view hard data for two or three schools side by side using the "Compare" function. (You'll need the desktop version to find this easily, not the mobile version. It took "the Dean" a little stint on Google to figure out how to reach the desktop site from a phone!) See how the median test scores and grades compare to yours. If you are below this middle range, ask yourself, "What ELSE might I bring to this campus? (Outstanding athletic talent? Other atypical talent or experiences? Underrepresented minority background? VIP or legacy connection?) And if the answer is, "Nothing," you'll probably be looking at a "Reach" school and maybe even an "Out of Reach" school.

3. Check out comments on the College Confidential website

Visit the forums to learn more about the schools you're considering. On some forums, current students have offered to answer questions, so take advantage of this offer. And if you don't see a thread for 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!).

4. Visit the Schools' Websites Directly

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.

5. Ask everyone

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 "Clark 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!)

6. Google Each School

Do a Google search of the college's name to see what turns up besides just the school's Web site. You can probably find links to the college newspaper to identify the most sizzling issues (global hunger, core curriculum concerns, or the demise of Dunkin' Donuts in the rec center?) as well as links to faculty research, to sports results, and to other publicity—both good and not-so-good—that might help round out the big picture. Google Maps will allow you to view campus buildings and also to see if the school is surrounded by forests and fields or by fast-food joints. (And either one might be your preference!)

7. Ask Your Counselor

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.

Happy Hunting!

A version of this article original appeared on College Confidential in December 2017. Does the advice still hold true? Visit the CC forums to weigh in and learn more about the colleges you're interested in!

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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