How To Research Colleges

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April 15, 2016

Starting your college list is an exciting time but can also be overwhelming with so many options and a wealth of information available at our fingertips. Before you begin your search, it is important to consider what you are looking for in a college experience. To learn more about this process, click here and here.

College Research

Once you have an understanding of your college needs, it's time to get your hands dirty and begin researching schools. We highly recommend that you keep notes while you research. Keeping notes at this initial stage can help you determine college fit AND save you hours when you have to write your supplemental essays.

A few tips on keeping notes:

  • You may want to create a Google drive folder/document for each college to store your research.
  • Try to dig deep when you take notes and find information that is related to your interests and goals. You can easily skim data to make sure it's right at a surface level, but you have to look under the hood. What courses stand out to you? Why? Which unique programs, organizations, or opportunities tie into your interests? What are some distinct opportunities at each school that stand out from the rest?
  • Jot down questions that arise as you read. You can use these questions during interviews, visits, or in emails.
  • As you read, take notes not only on what you find, but also on how you plan to take advantage of what the college has to offer. How will X help you reach your goals?
  • You should get lost deep into college websites, going far beyond the list of majors. It may be difficult to find the information you stumble on again, so copy down links that you find valuable. Similarly, feel free to copy/paste text that contains important information instead of retyping everything.

College Search Sites

So, by this point you have your initial long list and your Google drive set up and you are ready to begin. Now, where to start researching?

We recommend beginning with websites that provide a snapshot of the school and the admissions data to give you a quick look at the basics (size, location, popular majors, admissions rates and details, etc.).

Here are some of our favorite search websites (click each title to go to the website):

  1. Big Future College Board: This website allows you to search by college name or input criteria. The site then generates a list of colleges based on your needs. The school profiles they provide include useful information, graphics, images, and requirements. You can learn everything, from a breakdown of the makeup of the student body to most popular majors to admissions requirements and deadlines.
  2. Parchment: Parchment is a great tool to help you see your admissions probability at a given college. The site also provides basic information on the schools, including how to connect with them.
  3. Naviance: Naviance is something you will need access to through your school. Through Naviance you can read about schools as well as explore trends in admissions throughout history at your school and overall, including graphs as to your likely admissions chances.


The next step is to read a more qualitative analysis of the school. We recommend several print books that provide a wealth of comprehensive and detailed information about colleges from various perspectives. Learn more about unique programs, student feedback, academic and social life, and school culture.

Here are some of our favorite books (click each title to learn more and purchase):

  1. Fiske Guide To Colleges
  2. Insiders Guide to Colleges
  3. The Best 380 Colleges by Princeton Review
  4. Colleges that Change Lives by Loren Pope
  5. The K&W Guide to College Programs & Services for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
  6. Creative Colleges
  7. America’s Best Colleges for B Students

Social Media and Virtual Tours

Now you've begun to narrow your list based on your research. From here, you may want to begin identifying schools to visit, or you may want to continue researching your favorites. A great way to learn about schools is to check out their social media or do virtual tours. This approach will allow you to find out what the school is talking about, interact directly with the school, and get a feel for the campus. You may learn a great nugget of information here that will stand out in your “why X school” essay.

Here are our suggestions on social media and virtual tours:

Make sure to explore each school on-

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • YouTube

Also check out virtual visits on (click titles to go to website)-

College Websites

At this point, you have likely whittled your list even further and have begun to identify your favorites. Now it's time to roll up your sleeves and delve into the college website. This is when you'll need to do some heavy lifting. You want to get “lost” on the college websites and take a lot of notes about what stands out, how you envision yourself at the school, and what questions you have. Most of this information will not only help you finalize your list and determine fit, but will also be the foundation for your communication with the admissions reps and the basis for your supplements.

A quick tip – copy links and text from the website into your research notes. It is sometimes difficult to find this information later, and you want to make sure to capture it right away to save time!

Here is some advice on how to explore college websites:

  • What is on their Homepage. Are they highlighting the big spring fling or football game? Are they highlighting the latest research symposium? Are they showcasing distinguished faculty and students? Are they providing a slideshow of the latest musical performance? Noticing what the school lets the visitor see first can give you insight into the school’s priorities and culture.
  • What images are they showing of the school throughout the website? Stunning buildings? Research labs? The sprawling quad? The pictures they choose to share will give you insight into what features and facilities they are most proud of.
  • Look for a section called "Students" or "Student life". (This may be in the admissions tab.)
  • Read about the clubs and organizations available
  • Explore the housing options
  • Read the news and events
  • Find out about the sports and recreation activities
  • Learn about opportunities to study abroad
  • Look for a section called "Academics".
  • Read about the majors and minors
  • Research majors you're considering—what programs do they offer? What news are they sharing? Which classes sound fun?
  • Which facilities are available to you? Which research opportunities?
  • Look for "Student services" or "Student support".
  • What services do they offer?
  • What is the advising system like?
  • Is academic guidance available?
  • Look for "Career Services".
  • What services are available?
  • What kind of job placement information are they sharing?
  • What types of internship or co-op programs do they offer?
  • Look for the "Admissions Section".
  • Take a look at last year’s class profile.
  • What is required to apply?
  • Which unique programs can you apply for?
  • Which scholarships are available?
  • What does the application process entail?
  • What are the opportunities available for visiting or interviews?

We can help you craft your best-fit college list. To learn more and schedule a complimentary 30-minute consultation in person or by Skype, contact us here