The College Search: Where Do I Start?

When you realize there are more than 3,500 colleges in the U.S., not to mention great options abroad, it may seem like college rankings are the logical place to start the college search.

Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not.

Rankings are fine as a comparison tool, but you need to understand how they are made to get an idea of what they really mean to you personally.

With the number of “top college” lists growing every year, you could spend all your time reading rankings without getting close to information that helps you find your perfect college fit.

RELATED: How to KEEP CALM and Handle the Sophomore FREAK OUT

Find out what a college can provide that’s important to you — not the list-makers.

Keeping these two bits of advice in mind may help you put all those lists in perspective:

  • Don’t think you have to go with a university that made one of the top (or just one of the best-known) rankings. If you follow these lists year after year (like someone who, say, writes for a higher education blog might <ahem>), you’ll notice there isn’t a lot of change in the colleges that are consistently named. Guess what? The Ivy League and top public colleges are great schools. Gee, what a surprise! That still doesn’t tell you whether you’ll fit in at any of them.
  • Take time to check out the methodology for any rankings you’re reading to be sure their criteria include things that are important to you. Your perfect college fit may not be an institution that is a “rankings rock star.”

[box type=”info”] How are rankings made? All kinds of ways. Some things they can be based on include evaluations from administrators of other colleges, student surveys (distributed in a variety of scientific and not scientific manners), input from faculty, research expenditure, and more. The survey methodology should be available on the source’s web site. If it is not, then you should steer clear. You really can’t make an educated decision based on mystery criteria.[/box]

So, where can you start?

Go ahead and take a look at some well-known rankings. See what they list as important, then make your own list of “things that are important to ME” in a college.

Read up on college searches from a variety of sources, like this good advice for parents of high school juniors from Forbes contributor Steve Cohen.

Get a manageable list together of some colleges that seem interesting enough to investigate further. Once you have a list together, start planning visits to the ones you really would consider making your home for the next several years.

Visiting is the single best way to determine whether a college is really right for you.

You never want to enroll at a college sight unseen — heed the advice of Parent College Coach Suzanne Shaffer, who speaks from experience, in Parents — Don’t skip the college visits. Just remember everyone looks good in their brochures!

For your first visit, go somewhere close to home. It’ll minimize cost and help you work the bugs out of your visit routine. Check out our post, How Many Colleges Should You Visit, to help find the right number for you.


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