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Finding the Right College

So how do you go about finding a college that fits you just right?


Your goal is to narrow the choices


There are thousands of colleges. You can’t research them all. If you know what you really need in a college, you can eliminate all the ones that don’t have those things.


But not too far!


As they say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The college admissions process can seem random sometimes. You may be a perfect candidate for your dream school, but so might 5,000 other applicants. You may be a wonderful saxophone player, but maybe your dream school’s bassoonist just graduated. The applicant who plays the bassoon may have an edge. You’ll never know these things, so apply broadly.


If you really want to go to a UC campus, don’t just apply to Berkeley and UCLA. Include some of the UC campuses with higher admission rates. Include some Cal State University campuses. Include some private schools, but not just Ivy League schools. It’s very hard to get into the most highly selective schools. Include some less selective schools. They often have more merit aid for great students like ours. Talk to your counselor about your list of schools. Be sure you discuss your preferences with your parents, as well, in case there are family constraints on where you can look.


It’s also a good idea to look at lots of different kinds of schools at first. As you learn about them, you will start to figure out what feels right for you. You may be surprised by that answer. When you start, you may think you would never want to go to a school with fewer students than Mission HS has. As you learn more about colleges, though, you may find that a small school would offer you advantages you hadn’t considered. So don’t rule anything out at first.


That said, here are some methods that you can use to try to go from thousands of schools to dozens of schools.


Ways to narrow the choices


Size yourself up


One way to start narrowing the choices is to consider what you’re looking for in a college. The Fiske Guide to Colleges has a 30-question survey to help you figure that out. You can use your insights and an online college search engine to find colleges to research further. The Fiske "Sizing Yourself Up" survey is available online here:


Start with an academic interest


If you love a certain subject in school, you can use it as a starting point for a college search. A good place to start is College Board’s Book of Majors. The front sections of the book have in-depth descriptions of a couple hundred majors and brief descriptions of hundreds more. The longer descriptions also include information about what it’s like to study these majors in college and what careers people studying the major often follow. There are cross references to other majors you may also like.


Once you find a few majors that sound interesting, use the back section of the book to find colleges with those majors. The point of this approach is not to tie you down to a major now, (though learning about majors and careers is a good exercise in itself); the point is for you to find colleges that have all the majors that you might want to study. Those are the colleges you should research further.


If your interests are available at most colleges, you can use one of the other methods for narrowing your list. If you have no idea what you might want to study in college, a medium- to large-sized university could be a good choice. They have the most options. Also remember that many students who think they know exactly what they want to study change their minds once they are in college.


Other books with lists of colleges arranged by major are:


Rugg's Recommendations on the Colleges.

By Frederick E. Rugg

The colleges are listed by size, selectivity, and location type within majors. The last print version of the book is 2010. After that, it is only being sold as a pdf. The SF public library has the 2010 edition.


The College Finder (3rd edition.)

By Steven R. Antonoff

This book lets you find colleges by many different categories in addition to majors including sports programs, religious affiliation, quality of food, unusual mascots, and many more. It’s a fun book to browse through.

The lists from this book are available on a website that also includes a college and scholarship search portion. You have to register to see the lists, but it’s free.


You can also do this major-based exploration on the College Board’s website.


The “Prepare for College” section of the Federal Student Aid website provides tools for exploring your interests and a college search engine that lets you look by major.


Other search engines often let you search by major as well.


Start with a non-academic interest


You can use this same method with a non-academic interest, too. If you enjoy a sport or performing art, but don’t want to major in it, look for schools with that major anyway. You will likely find resources that will let you continue your interest as a non-major. Check with the school, though, to be sure non-majors can take classes. Check with your coach or art teacher for recommendations, too.


If your interest isn’t one that people major in, try an online college search engine anyway. Are there parts of the country where your interest is popular? Try looking for colleges near those areas. Are there experts in the field? Where did they study? Try The College Finder book, too.


Start with a type of school


Another way to narrow down your search is to learn about the various types of colleges and see if any of them sound really good or really bad. Colleges can be classified in several ways: Ownership of the school (public or private); Mission of the school (Research universities, comprehensive colleges, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, specialty schools that focus on training in areas like performing arts, business or engineering); Special attributes of the school (women’s colleges, religiously affiliated colleges, historically black colleges, colleges with strong core curricula, colleges with good support for students with special needs).


Here is a brief description of the various types of colleges:


You can also read about the various types in an overview guidebook. If you think one sounds like it will fit you well, you can concentrate your search on that kind of school. Don’t narrow your type of school too early, though. Make sure you’ve looked at many types before ruling any out.


To get you started learning about the various types of schools, here’s a good description of the difference between liberal arts colleges and research universities that is excerpted from the book, Admission Matters, which we mentioned at the start of this guide.


Start with a location


How far away from home do you want to be? Do you want to go to college in California? Is it your dream to live in New York City or Boston? Maybe you’d like to go to school in the middle of the country. Use the indices of guide books, maps and online search tools to find colleges in the area of your choice.


If you are an athlete


If you are considering participating in intercollegiate sports in college, you need to familiarize yourself with the NCAA rules governing college sports. See the "For Athletes" section of this website to learn more. Make sure that you consider other factors besides sports when you select a college so that your choice will still be a good fit even if your athletics plans change.


To factor cost in early


The College Board online college search engine lets you set various price variables in its “Paying” filter. Use it to find colleges that may fit your needs.


The US Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency Center has tools for getting an overview of education costs.


There are many more ideas and tools for keeping college costs in check in the “Ways to Limit Costs” section of our website. Make sure you learn as much as you can about financial aid, too.


Ask other people for suggestions


Your counselor, teachers, coaches, close family friends, dentist, doctor and school staff and volunteers are all people who might have suggestions for schools that could be good choices for you. Let everyone know that you’re starting to look for colleges. See if they have any ideas. If they do have suggestions, ask them why they think that school would be good for you.


Research, Research, Research


Once you’ve come up with a list of colleges that are good possibilities, you need to learn as much about them as you can. As you do this research, you will start to understand better what you’re looking for. Some colleges will leave you cold, but some will jump out at you as being perfect for you. That’s what you’re looking for. Add or remove colleges as you refine your needs. Your goal is to find eight to twelve colleges that you would be excited to attend; where you can see yourself thriving.


Don’t include a school in your list just because it’s prestigious. Don’t include a school that is totally out of your reach academically. Don’t include a school just to please your parents if you aren’t really interested in going there. You are looking for schools that fit YOU well.


As you research the colleges, you may want to pay attention to these factors:


Size – It can affect the number and kinds of experiences and opportunities available as well as student teacher ratio, size of classes and the like.

Location and setting – It can determine how often you come home and what kind of day-to-day life you might have.

Academic offerings – How broad and balanced is the range of majors? Can students study abroad? If you have a major in mind, does the department have strong offerings and respected faculty?

College life beyond classes – What is available in athletics, clubs and other activities, housing, Greek life, the surrounding community?

Cost – Focus on the net price rather than the cost of attendance. Most colleges offer need-based financial aid. Many offer merit scholarships. Use the college’s net price calculator to estimate costs, but don’t rule a school out in the early research for cost alone.

Student body – What kinds of students go there? Is there much diversity of gender, ethnicity, economic background, religion, political views? Are there international students? Are the students there to study or party?

Statistics on retention and graduation rates – Colleges with a high percentage of students returning after their first year and high graduation rates are likely to have good academic, social and financial support systems.


Here are resources you can use to research colleges:


Use college websites


The most accurate information about a college will come from its own website. The admissions portion of the site will give you all the information you need to know about how and when to apply, but remember that it will be geared toward enticing you to go there. Look at other parts of the website to get a fuller picture. Look for college newspapers, lists of majors and courses, campus living details, dining hall menus, the mission statement of the school, athletics, calendars of activities, library catalogs, and learning support to name a few. Browse the site map to find information of interest to you.


Look at the section often called Institutional Research to find statistics on many aspects of the college. The Common Data Set provides a standard set of information that colleges report to publishers including College Board, Peterson’s and U.S. News and World Report as the basis of their search engines and ratings. You can use it to compare colleges on things like class sizes, diversity, and the amount of need-based and non-need-based aid given.


What you learn on a college’s website can give you a sense of what is valued. That can help you write a good application if you decide to apply to the college.


Use college profile books


College profile guidebooks provide information about individual colleges. They come in two types: Those with objective information only and those with subjective evaluations and reviews. They typically publish a new edition every year. Use the latest editions of the guides you find most useful.


Examples of good objective guidebooks are:


College Handbook. Published by The College Board.

Four Year Colleges. Published by Peterson’s


Examples of good subjective guidebooks are:


The Best 378 Colleges. Published by Princeton Review

Big Book of Colleges. Published by College Prowler

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. By Loren Pope (Current edition revised by Hilary Masell Oswald.)

Fiske Guide to Colleges. By Edward B. Fiske

Students’ Guide to Colleges. Edited by Jordan Goldman and Colleen Buyers

See here for more books you might consider using.


Use online tools


Start with ConnectEdu, the online tool provided by the school district to help you in your college and career planning. Make sure you’ve registered and are following your counselor’s advice on using the program. Read more here.


Other online tools can supplement ConnectEdu’s resources. See our list of website links for more information. There are many valuable sources of information. The Counseling Department also has a good list of links for you to explore.


Visit the colleges


Nothing can give you a better feel for what a college is like than a visit to the campus. The best time to visit is when the college is in session. Spring break is a good time to see classes in action if the college break is a different week. Consider visiting a nearby college on a weekend. Summer and winter breaks are good times to visit if you can’t go when the college is in session. See if you can stay overnight to get the best sense of college life.


College admissions offices provide campus tours and orientation meetings for visiting students and their families. The meetings usually cover information about the school, its admissions process and financial aid details. Sometimes you have to register in advance for tours. Check the college’s website. Make sure you sign in with the admissions office. A visit is a great way to show your interest in the school.


Some colleges will pay for under-represented and low income students to visit campus. The deadline to apply for these funds is very early in the school year, so watch for announcements or look for information on the college’s website.


It’s best if your first visit is not to your favorite school. You’ll learn what’s important to look for and ask once you have visited a few schools.


Read your mail


If you checked “yes” for Student Search Service when you took the PSAT, you will probably get plenty of mail from colleges. The colorful brochures often have beautiful pictures of happy students just waiting for you to join them. Sometimes the mailings even make it sound like the college is offering you a spot, but they are not. Remember that these are marketing materials designed to make you want to apply. The more students apply to a college, the more selective the college can be. The more selective a college is, the higher its ratings will be. Still, if you keep in mind what you are really looking for in a college, you may discover a perfect school for you. So look at the brochures before you toss them. (And remember to recycle.)


You will also likely get lots of emails from colleges. Follow the same advice.


If you find a school that you are sincerely interested in, do reply to the email or register on the school’s admissions website. Showing interest can make a difference at some schools.


Read more about the Student Search Service here:

ASAP Join Athletic Scholars Advancement Program
ASAP assists students with the college selection, application and financial aid processes.