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How to Research Colleges

Jun 7, 2021

Whether you’re a second semester junior or a sophomore who wants to get a head start on the college application process, it’s a great time to start thinking about where you’ll spend the four years of life that follow high school. With over 5,000 colleges in the U.S. alone, you might not know how to start the process of researching schools! Following these tips will help you through the research process and allow you to create a balanced college list!

Consider your criteria

If you’re just starting to apply to college, you might be tempted to apply to the top 25 ranked colleges and call it a day. However, what most students don’t realize when they begin their research is that all schools are vastly different and offer different opportunities! Your college list should reflect your priorities as a student and as a member of your future college community.

The first step is to make a list of criteria and rank the factors that are most important to you. Some of the top factors to consider are location, size, and program strengths. You might also consider whether you’d like to attend a research university or a liberal arts college. You can use our College Planning Worksheet to learn about and rank each factor!

Keep in mind that your preferences might shift over time as you learn more about different types of schools, and as you learn and grow as an individual! Be open to the possibility that you might love attending a school you didn’t initially imagine yourself thriving at! Using some of the factors above, you should create an initial list of schools that seem to check all of the boxes for you.

Poke around on the college’s website and department pages

Once you’ve made a preliminary list of schools that sound appealing to you, it’s time to start researching each school in-depth! The first thing you might want to do is to visit the college’s website to learn about their specific application process and to get a feel for what the school might offer.

You can also visit the school’s department pages to learn about departmental-specific opportunities. Although different colleges might offer similar majors, your experience within the college might look different based on the specific department’s focus. For instance, UC Berkeley offers a more progressive and contemporary take on literature than Columbia, whose English department is more grounded in a classical canon; Harvard’s computer science department takes on a bit more of a theoretical approach as opposed to that of Stanford, which focuses more on hands-on application; and the University of Chicago’s economics department follows a more conservative trajectory than Yale’s. You can also use departmental pages to network with professors! For brownie points, you can email a professor whose research interests you and have a chat with them about their work.

Watch videos on YouTube or CampusReel to see what current students are up to

Now that you’ve learned about a college’s academic offerings, you should spend some time learning about its extracurricular opportunities and campus life! A great way to do this is to watch videos published by current students or college alumni on YouTube or CampusReel. Some students will take you on tours of their dorm rooms or talk about what the typical day in the life of a student looks like at their college. This approach will give you a more personalized feel for the college and allow you to learn from your peers about what it’s like to attend their college!

Visit campus

The best way to get a feel for a college campus is to see it for yourself! Walking around campus will give you a sense of the college’s student life and will give you a taste of the college’s culture. Take advantage of campus tours and information sessions to learn about the college. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Admissions officers are there to help you out!

Engage in the college’s virtual tour or information sessions

If you’re unable to visit the college in person, you can take advantage of virtual tours to walk around campus remotely. Most colleges will supplement virtual tours with virtual information sessions, so you might want to consider signing up for both! If the live virtual information sessions don’t work with your schedule, you can usually listen to a prerecorded information session on the college’s website!

Whether you’re visiting a school in person or virtually, we recommend that you take notes about your likes and dislikes about each school. It can be difficult to remember small details six months after your visit when you sit down to write your college applications, many of which will ask a “why this school?” question. The key to answering these well is to write about specific aspects of each school that you like, so taking specific notes throughout the research process will help you to nail these supplements!

Have a coffee chat with an alum

Another great way to learn about a college is to chat with a college alum to learn more about their experiences! You can check out your high school’s alumni network to see if any students from your high school attended the colleges that you’re interested in applying to, or you can email current students to ask if they’d be willing to chat about the college. You might also gain a valuable mentor along the way!

Create a balanced list

Once you’ve completed your research, it’s time to narrow down your college list and figure out which schools you’re going to apply to. We recommend creating a balanced list of reach, match, and safety schools to maximize your chances of admission.

Reach schools are those schools we tend to think of when we say “dream” school–the Ivy Leagues and Stanfords of the world. Although these schools are highly coveted, keep in mind that they’re highly competitive for everyone–even if you have perfect grades and test scores. Match schools, on the other hand, should reflect your grades and test scores. This means that your GPA and test scores should fall within the mid-50 percentile range your match schools report. Finally, your safety schools should be schools whose mid-50 range is below your own grades and test scores. Although safety schools might not be everyone’s more desirable choice, it’s important to find several of these schools that you would be happy to attend. Safety schools typically have acceptance rates of 40-60% and over (depending on the student).

Your list should ideally include 5-7 reach schools, 5-7 match schools, and 2-3 safety schools. Applying to a variety of schools will ensure that you don’t put all of your eggs in one basket and will guarantee that you have a school to attend come fall!

Finally, make sure not to stress out about the college research process! Researching colleges can be a valuable opportunity for learning more about yourself and networking with people who might be useful along your journey. Good luck!