Chapter 5: The college search

Table of contents

5.1 Introduction

Two people drinking coffee together. There is a map laid out on the table.

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So, you’ve decided that college may be right for you. That’s great! Now it’s time to begin thinking concretely about the next part of your life. It’s always best to begin preparing for this as early as possible, but it’s never too late to start. Regardless of where you’re at, the next two chapters will walk you through all the steps so that you know how to give yourself the best chance at success in your college search!

This short chapter is all about the
college search.  It will discuss how to: 

  • Search for a college or a university that’s right for you
  • Consider factors such as cost or available programs

Some of you reading this may still be in your teens, trying to get a headstart on your future. Others may be well into adulthood, considering coming back to an old ambition. We’re here to guide you in your college search no matter where you’re at. It’s never too late to start a new educational journey!

So that’s why we’ll be providing two sets of planning guides in this chapter. Not everything in this chapter may apply to your specific situation, but we hope the information will give you a good start for your preparation over the coming years. From financials to the SAT, there’s a lot to consider before you start applying. But by the end of this chapter, you should have a solid idea of the factors that go into choosing colleges to apply to. So whenever you’re ready, let’s get started! Your future awaits.

5.2 Which colleges should I apply to?

Congratulations! You have now made it to the fun part: choosing the correct college for you. Lush quads, brick buildings and merchandise sweatshirts await. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that there are around 4,000 colleges and universities in the nation; narrowing down the search can seem like a daunting task! Do not fear – we are here to help you think through the factors you should consider when searching for the right college or university. 

5.2.1 Cost

The cost of university can vary widely. University of Massachusetts Global published a comprehensive article breaking down the multiple elements that affect tuition cost. The two factors we will be discussing are: type of school and financial aid.

Type of School: There are two main types of colleges in the United States: public and private. Public universities are funded by the government while private universities are funded by endowments and grants. If you are looking at a public university in the state that you are a resident in, you will qualify for in–state tuition. In-state tuition is significantly cheaper than out-of-state tuition, which is tuition to attend a public university in a state you are not a resident of. has a helpful article on how to establish what state you are a resident in.  If you are interested in attending a private university, your state residency will not affect cost.

 As a whole, public universities charge cheaper tuition than private universities. According to US News and World Report, the average annual cost of tuition at an in-state public university was $10,423, while the average yearly cost for a private institution was $39,723.  In addition to cost, there are other differences between public and private colleges in terms of class size, number of majors offered, prestige, extracurriculars available, diversity of the student body, hands-on learning opportunities, etc. This article from breaks down some of these differences, although it’s important to remember these are generalizations and may not hold for a particular school.

Financial Aid: Many students qualify for federal financial aid. While applying for college, you will fill out a FAFSA form that will determine what aid you are eligible for.  The most common forms of financial aid include grants, loans and scholarships. We will discuss this in greater detail in Chapter 8 but, in summary, grants and scholarships will reduce the overall price of your college education. Loans, on the other hand, are borrowed money that you are expected to pay back with interest rates in the future. It is important to remember that each university that accepts you will give you a unique financial aid package, so schools will vary in their generosity. published a helpful article on breaking down a university’s financial aid offer and understanding how much you will be expected to pay.

5.2.2 Selectivity

Selectivity is one of the most important aspects of choosing colleges to apply to. You want to apply to colleges that will seriously consider you based on your grades, courses taken, and your test scores. We’ll go into more detail on grades and standardized tests, in particular, in the next chapter. 

Colleges are generally broken down into the following groups:

  • Most selective colleges seek students who earn mostly A’s, take many AP and Honors courses, and who score at least 1400 on the SAT critical reading and math portions. Out of students who do have these credentials, only a small minority will gain admission. 
  • Very selective colleges seek students with solid A-/B+ averages who score approximately 1200 to 1400 on the SAT critical reading and math portions and are in solid programs that usually include some AP and Honors courses.
  •  Selective colleges admit students whose grades are mostly in the B/C+ range in a standard college prep program and who score at least between 1000 and 1200 on the SAT critical reading and math portions.
  • Open-enrollment or open-admissions colleges admit any student who has a high school diploma or GED. This includes most community colleges (from which you can transfer to a 4-year college) as well as many 4-year colleges. You can find a list of 4-year colleges with at or near a 100% acceptance rate at US News and World Report.

If you type “[School name] admissions statistics” into a search engine, you should be able to locate the school’s admissions requirements and/or the average GPAs and test scores for successful applicants.  

Selectivity has little to do with the quality of education you will receive at a particular school; instead, it is more a measure of the resources and connections of the students, faculty, and staff. In general, if you aspire to a career of extreme prestige and fame—for example, a US Supreme Court Justice or a Silicon Valley CEO—the most selective schools may be the best way to form the connections with the rich and powerful that are necessary to succeed in these careers. If that is not your path, a school’s selectivity makes very little difference to your educational experience.  

Based on a school’s criteria and your own academic performance, you can group potential schools into three categories: 

  • Reach schools: Schools for which  your test scores and GPA are below the 25th percentile and/or all most selective colleges. These are dream schools. 
  • Match schools: Schools for which your scores and GPA are between the 25th and 75th percentile. You have the credentials but there are no guarantees.
  • Safety schools: Schools for which your test scores and performance are above the 75th percentile. In other words, these are schools that are likely to accept you based on your credentials. 

When applying to colleges, it is important to be pragmatic and realistic about the choices available based on credentials. To have the ideal pool of options, we recommend that you identify between 6-9 potential colleges to apply to with 2-3 schools in each category: reach, match and safety. If your options are more limited, we still recommend applying to several schools and taking their selectivity into account as you determine where to spend your efforts.

5.2.3 Programs

When looking at universities, it is important to consider what programs a university offers. A university website will publish a list of majors and minors offered. Look for a page called “Degree Programs” or “Majors and Minors.” If you have an idea of what major you are interested in, ensure that the universities you are applying to offer that major. If you do not have a major in mind, take a look at the majors and minors that a university offers and make sure they offer a wide range. 

Another technique is to type “[School name] course catalog” into a search engine. With a little searching, you may be able to find the list of courses that are required for a particular major—and even compare them across schools! This will allow you to see the types of learning that different schools think are necessary to master the subject area. For example, if you want to be a marine biologist, but the school’s Biology program does not include courses in ecology or zoology, you may realize it’s not the right program for you. Individual majors at a school may also have their own websites, which present their philosophy toward educating students and give examples of the types of learning experiences their students can have.

A less important factor that is still an element to consider is program ranking. One website to look at is US News; they have published over 100 different ways of ranking universities. While their criteria for ranking a school may not match yours, they can be helpful tools to narrow down the college search. One tip is to not look at the overall ranking of a school but instead the ranking in regards to your major. While a school may be in the top 10 in the nation for English, that is not helpful if you are planning on studying Chemistry. 

5.2.3 Environment

Finally, while you are researching colleges, you should consider the environment that the university is in. The two environmental factors we will highlight are location and school culture.

Location: The location of your future college will play an important role in your college experience. Take into consideration the size and climate of the town your future college is located in. Are  you a city person who is energized by the hustle and bustle? Then perhaps you should not consider a college in a  small college town. Likewise, if you prefer a traditional university experience, then you might want to avoid colleges scattered across the heart of the city.  If you are someone who prefers a certain climate, take that into consideration as you continue the research process.

School culture: Consider the extracurricular activities you want to participate in during your college career. Do you want to participate in sports, Greek life, improv comedy, or honor societies? If so, research the social opportunities that a college offers. You want to ensure you have ample opportunities to learn and grow outside the classroom. Explore the websites of schools; schools typically have tabs entitled “Campus Culture” or “Campus Life,” where they post organizations and activities they offer for students to get involved in. Ensure that your prospective colleges offer a range of activities you might be interested in. 

While we highly recommend reading up on a campus environment online, it’s no replacement for visiting the colleges you are interested in, if it’s possible. Visiting colleges is a key part of the application process. First, you will get a sense about whether you can commit the next 4 years of your life to this institution. Second, since colleges are looking carefully at “demonstrated interest”: visiting shows them that you are interested. More on that in the next chapter!

When you visit, be sure to do so while classes are in session and try to plan an overnight. Attend a class or two if at all possible. You can find information on planning visits on the college’s website. 

Overall, the idea is to target schools where you can expect to be comfortable. Some general tips on this front: 

  • Do not focus solely on name recognition.
  • Do not reject a college just because your friends have not heard of it or because one person said something negative about it.
  • Make your own decisions based on your own research.

5.3 Conclusion

It’s never too late to get an education. While it does take some preparation and planning to be able to go to a university that’s a good fit for you, that journey can begin anywhere. The college search is one of the the most important factors in this quest.  

Now that you’ve finished this chapter, we hope you have gained:

  • Resources to aid you in your college search
  • Understanding of what goes into college preparation

Once you’ve narrowed down a set of schools to apply to, you may wonder how to actually start applying. But don’t worry! That’s what chapter 6 is for.  We will walk you through the application process itself step-by-step. As you ready to continue this process, we hope you’ll keep all of this preparation in mind to help you stay on track. The steps you’ve taken in this chapter will make applying a much easier process. So don’t let yourself be intimidated—you’ve already gotten this far! 

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