How to start researching a college

college admissions strategy

With summer break just starting, you may be gearing up for the beginnings of the rest of your life. While you navigate test prep and the normal vicissitudes of living life, you may also be beginning to fret about college applications. One question I get a lot at this time of year is the big one: which colleges should I apply to? A lot of that depends on who you are and what you want. As such, I thought it would be helpful to introduce you to some of the tools I like for helping students research colleges.   

Ranking Lists 

Probably the best-known tool is the US News & World Reports list. While this is far from a flawless list, it is good for making broad generalizations and organizational decisions. I should note that the rankings are rather arbitrary and are not without controversy. The US News changed its algorithm last year, for instance, and there were lots of pretty dramatic changes in the rankings, leading some to question the scientific accuracy of the lists themselves. There are other problems with the list too. For example, US News & World Reports relies on colleges to submit their own data, meaning colleges can manipulate their own admissions information to better fit the algorithms and criteria used by the US News rankers. All that being said, the US News list is helpful at getting a general idea of which schools are perceived as great and which are… not so well perceived, let’s say. 

You can also look for rankings based on your chosen majors. Some colleges are well regarded across the board, but most colleges are better known for certain majors. If you want to major in English, it doesn’t make sense to focus your attention on schools that are primarily known for STEM, for example. And a lot of schools that are lower ranked overall are actually top-ten ranked for specific programs.  

Lifestyle Factors

Beyond the ranking lists, you should definitely consider your own needs. Remember, a college is not just a place to get an education—it’s also your home for four years. If you hate cold weather, I can assure you that you will not like attending school in the Upper Midwest. If you don’t like living in cities, you probably won’t like schools in Boston or New York. And if it’s important for you to be close to home, you probably shouldn’t look at schools on the other side of the country. Once you determine the things most important to you, you can focus your research on schools that have those things and rank the schools yourself. You might ask friends or family who have attended the school or even look at social media to see what the vibe of the school seems to be. Colleges, like students, have personalities, and you want to make sure you both click!  

School Websites

Ok, so you’ve got the list narrowed down a bit. Now what? Start by going to a school’s website. There, you can find what majors the school offers, what clubs you can join, what student life is like, and everything else you need to know. However, remember, the websites are basically a sales pitch for the school, meaning they are showing you what they most want to present about themselves. If you have the option of seeing a school firsthand, that truly is the best research you can conduct.  

It’s a long process and not something you should rush. But it should be fun too! The ultimate goal is to find a number of schools at which you can see yourself. 

Marcus holds a Master's in Liberal Studies from Columbia University. He previously graduated summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota with a BA in American Studies.

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