How to Start the College Search

Finding a college is a little like shopping for the perfect pair of jeans: it’s got to fit well everywhere. Of course, the college search process is a lot longer and can be stressful for students and their families. To ease the process, we’ve put together a guide on how to start the college search for high school students.

Start Early
Summer is an ideal time to begin the search. Bring a favorite college guide to the beach or head to the library on a rainy afternoon. Students that are well prepared at the start of their senior year will have a much smoother transition than those scrambling at the last minute.

Assess Transcripts and Scores
The first thing to do when searching for a college is for students to take a long, honest look at their high school transcript. The courses they’ve taken and corresponding scores are the single most important factor in college admissions. Every year of high school counts. If a student took high school-level courses and exams in middle school, colleges will see those, too.

If the student had a rocky academic start, it won’t necessarily prevent them from being admitted to college, but they will need to show improvement in later high school years.

Has the student taken the SAT and/or ACT? These tests are usually taken during the spring of 11th grade and the fall of 12th grade. How did they do? These scores will play a role in their potential admission to a school. During the college search process, families should compare a student’s scores to the median scores of freshmen admitted to the college.

Determine Finances
Finances are always a concern. How much money can the family realistically spare to pay for tuition costs? Are there savings intended for education? Will the student rely on the financial aid package or private loans (learning the ins and outs of Financial Aid will be covered in a later article)?

Families should start talking with their financial planner if they have one, and if not, they should begin doing a financial assessment themselves. For students utilizing financial aid and loans to pay for school, they can visit the government’s student federal aid website.

Consider What the College Can Offer
High school Guidance offices offer several options for college searches, but in summertime, students can start researching on their own. There are a number of paperback college guides. Websites like have search engines to assist a student in finding a school that meets their criteria.

Other factors to consider:

  • Size of school – Would the student fare better in a smaller school or thrive in a bustling large school?
  • Location of school – Does the student want to live closer to home or far away?
  • Campus setting – Would the student thrive in an urban, suburban, or rural setting?
  • Available housing for students – Are there requirements to live in a dorm for the first year? Are there apartments widely available?
  • NCAA Athletic Division (D1, D2, D3, Intermural) – For student athletes, does the college offer the desired sport and at what level?
  • Majors available - Does the college offer majors the student wants to pursue? If students don’t have majors in mind yet, this should be fine as an overwhelming majority of incoming freshmen apply as an “undeclared” major.

Once students know their priorities, have considered all factors, and researched schools, they can narrow the list down to eight to twelve schools (or less) that they’re interested in.

Go On College Tours
The next step is to visit the campuses. If it’s not possible to see all of them, at least try to visit the top picks. Every school looks great in a virtual tour or in brochures, but it’s hard to get a feel for a campus without actually going there.

Campus tours can be booked by calling the admissions office or sometimes through the school’s website. Schools will offer one or more “Open House” days during the school year. Open Houses should definitely be booked in advance. These days are busy ones; tours can range in size from 20 to 70 per group.

Families opting to visit in the summer may see an emptier campus, but will likely get a more personalized tour from their guide. Here are some tips to help students and parents get the most out of their college tour:

  • Check out computer labs
  • Check out recreational facilities
  • Check out student activities
  • Eat at a cafeteria
  • Eat at an off-campus student hang-out
  • Picture living here
  • Read bulletin boards
  • Read the college newspaper
  • Sit in on a class
  • Stay overnight in a dorm if possible
  • Talk to admissions office
  • Talk to professors
  • Talk to students
  • Tour campus
  • Tour the city around campus
  • Visit student housing
  • Visit the library

For More Information (National and Local)
College Visits:
College Guides:
Financial Aid:
List of Colleges in Long Island:



By Rachel Minkowsky

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