By Tim Martin | November 30, 2023, at 10:00 a.m.

Choosing the perfect college can be overwhelming for many students and families.

Taking the time during your high school years for self-reflection and research can make the college application and selection process enjoyable and help avoid surprises.

Here are five steps to begin your college search and discover a college community that fits:

For balanced college list preparation, high school students should ensure a mix of safety, match, and reach schools to maximize opportunities and find the best college fit.The College Search Begins With Self-Reflection

The best place to start is with yourself, as the selection of a college is very personal.

Many students make the mistake of only considering schools that are well-known for their football teams or appear on college ranking lists.

Other influences can come from friends and family members who may recommend certain universities based on their own experiences.

Keep in mind that they are describing their experiences and may not necessarily be the same as yours.

Research a College Effectively

Many websites and services offer data and opinions about schools, so check multiple sites.

If you have specific requirements, such as a major or a sport, make sure to look for schools that meet those needs.

Each college has a website that provides an overview of academic and extracurricular programs, including virtual tours and interviews with students.

If you have a positive feeling about a school, add your name to their mailing list to receive detailed information about special programs, visitation days, and other information for prospective students.

High school students must research effectively when building a college list, evaluating factors like faculty expertise, resources, and extracurricular offerings.Not only will this help you stay informed, but it also shows the college that you’re interested in, which could work in your favor when it comes to the college application process.

Questions to Help You Finalize Your College List

Approach your initial college list with an open mind, then start narrowing it down through research and self-reflection.

You can use these screening questions to get started, but remember to research and ask about the things that are most important to you.

🔹 Would you be comfortable on a large university campus in a big city, or would a smaller college close to home be appealing?  

🔹 Does the college offer the majors, programs, and extracurriculars you seek? Are the students attending the college the type of people that you would like to be around?  

🔹 Do a high percentage of their freshmen students return after their first year (retention rate), and do their students graduate in four years?  

Prepare for Your College Visit

To choose the right college, visit the colleges on your Top Ten list.

Every school will show pictures on its website of its beautiful campus with clear blue skies, smiling students, and amazing facilities.

It is important to see these schools with your own eyes. Stay focused on what’s important to you and see how each campus makes you feel.A prospective high school student immersed in a campus tour, captivated by lecture halls and vibrant student life, envisioning her as a part of this exciting academic community!

A formal campus tour may be less exciting than a game day, but it will provide the student experience you need to make an informed decision.

Decide Where to Apply to College

If you have 8-10 colleges that make your list, go ahead and apply by the listed deadlines.

You should have a range of schools, from ones where your academic profile meets or exceeds their typical admitted student to those where your acceptance might be considered a reach.

If you do not complete an app and send it, you will never know without trying, but always have a backup plan. 

Students have individual goals, so everyone’s journey through college is unique. The challenge is finding the best-fit college to provide the most nurturing environment for a student to grow.

Be thoughtful, intentional, and rational in your research, but trust your heart when a college feels right.

Free download of College “Fit” Inventory for College Planning.