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  • Writer's pictureJessica Chermak, CEP, LPC

How to Research Colleges to Build a Balanced List

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

One question that inevitably arises when we begin to work with students during their college search journey is "how do I research colleges?" With over 4,500 US colleges and universities to choose from, how can a student possibly narrow down that list to a core 8-12 schools to which they will apply?


Where to Start

At the beginning of the college search process, many students begin looking at the schools whose names are familiar to them. These might be schools parents attended, friends have discussed, or ones you've seen in the movies. This isn't a bad place to start, but it's important to keep an open mind as you explore schools that might be a good fit. Just because you don't recognize the name immediately doesn't mean a school isn't a perfect fit for you.

One way to start exploring different options is to talk to the adults in your life about where they attended, where else they applied, and what they liked and would have liked to change about their school of choice. Ask teachers, parents, and friend's parents!


Suggestions of What to Look For

College is a huge investment of time, money, and energy. When building the college list, we highly recommend first taking some time to consider at least five must-haves in a school. What do you need the school and community to offer? What are the deal-breakers that would prevent you from wanting to apply? Are there states in which you have no interest in living? How far do you want to be from home? From an airport?

These must-haves can include location, major, size, aesthetics, clubs, sports, research labs, on-campus housing, merit scholarships, etc. There are no wrong answers here!

Once you've found about 20-30 schools that might be of interest, start filtering for your other must-haves. Make sure schools are in geographically appealing areas to you, and then make sure that the size is right and they have your major. You may come to find that some of your must-haves are actually would-likes, for the right college!

Once you have considered what you need in a school, it's time to start your search! Below is a list of online resources that will make the process a lot easier to narrow the scope of your search prior to exploring each school's website. There are infinite ways to filter your search, so we recommend starting with #1 on your list of must-haves.

Eventually, when you have a sense of the type of school you're hoping to attend, you can start to explore their websites. We recommend completing an information request for each school of interest, so that they can start sending you some information that may be interesting to help you in your search**.

Some key data points you may want to look for at each school:

  • Average ACT/SAT of accepted students

  • Test-optional policies

  • Which application they use

  • Majors and Minors

  • Research Opportunities

  • Subject areas of interest outside your main field of study

  • General education requirements

  • Acceptance rates (don't put too much weight on these)

  • Clubs

  • Sports

  • Events on campus

  • Unique opportunities (ex. co-op early assurance programs)

**Note: It's really important to open emails from colleges of interest! Click on the links in there, spend time exploring the content they've shared. Most colleges can keep track of how long you spend on each page, which pages you visit, etc. Use this knowledge to your advantage to demonstrate interest!

Once you've found some schools of interest, be sure to sign up for their virtual (for now) information sessions, virtual campus tours, and virtual student panels. Some schools, like Tulane University, are offering several student panels spread over the course of a few months so you can sign up for more than one to gain more insight and perspective.


Resources to Aid in Your Search



Good luck (but I know you won't need it),

Jessica Chermak

Independent College Counselor

Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors

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