How to Research a College Effectively

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A person's hands on a laptop typing.

How to Research a College Effectively

As you approach your sophomore and junior year of college, you begin to start seriously considering which colleges you want to apply to. You might have considered different options in the past but without much in-depth research.

With # colleges and universities throughout the US, the thought of finding even a few colleges to submit applications to can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. Researching college options thoroughly is one of the best ways you can ensure you’re choosing the right schools.

Sitting at a desk typing on a laptop with a smartphone on the side

When you have a better understanding of what colleges offer, how they differ, and how they fit into your overall academic and professional goals, you can more confidently choose excellent schools worthy of your time and energy.

Here, we’re going to look at practical tips for researching college options effectively so you can better

Why is researching college options important?

Researching college is a must for any high schooler before beginning the college admissions process. Here are just a few of the advantages that come with this additional preparation:

It saves you time and energy.

Applying to college is an involved process requiring a lot of time, energy, and financial commitments from students. Depending on what your college requires, the college admissions process can easily take a few months to complete.

Plus, you have to pay a non-refundable fee for each application you submit. With all of your other high school responsibilities still on your shoulders, researching college choices extensively can ensure you’re using your resources valuably. In other words, you’ll know you’re applying to schools you actually plan on attending if accepted.

It improves the quality of your college choices.

As a high schooler, you’re strapped for time already. The thought of having to set aside more time for something as crucial as applying to college can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety.

The last thing you want is to waste your time by applying to a college or university which isn’t a good match for you. When researching college choices, you’re essentially filtering out all of the bad options. What you’re left with is a list of well-researched, viable, and good-fit college options that you would be happy to attend.

It gives you valuable information to use.

Researching college is the best way to help narrow down your list of top college choices, but that’s not the only advantage. When you start completing your application, you can use the research uncovered during your research to improve the quality of your submissions.

Admissions officers love to see applicants who are knowledgeable about their university and what it offers. With quality research, you’ll know exactly how to personalize your application and explain why you’re a great fit for the school and vice versa.

When should you start researching college possibilities?

Some high schoolers start thinking about college before their freshman year begins while others tend to wait until the last minute. So, when is the right time to start researching college options in-depth. We generally advise students to start developing a list of potential colleges during their sophomore year.

Earlier is always an option although you’ll have a better idea of what kind of what major you want to pursue and what kind of college you would enjoy the closer you are to graduation. However, you don’t want to end up waiting too long as you want sufficient time to pick good-fit schools where you’d actually want to attend if accepted.

Questions to ask yourself when researching college choices.

The most important factor to consider when researching colleges is something you’re an expert in: you! Just because a school looks perfect on paper, that doesn’t mean it’ll be a good match for you.

A woman sitting while looking at her laptop and taking down notes.

That’s why it’s important to ask yourself some key questions at the beginning of your research so you know what to look for in a college to ensure it’s good for you. Here are just a few of the key questions you should be asking yourself regularly to further limit your options effectively.

What do you want to study in college?

We know, we know. These words are enough to induce an anxiety attack for any high schooler who doesn’t have a clear idea of what they want to study. Don’t worry! When you’re researching college possibilities, it’s not necessary to know exactly what major you’ll choose.

But it is helpful to have a general idea. For example, if you know you’d prefer to choose a subject in science, you can narrow down your search to schools that offer robust science programs.

Where do you want to go to school?

Location is another major factor to consider when researching college possibilities. If you can eliminate an entire region of the country where you don’t want to attend or single out a state where you dream of going to school, you’ll have a much easier time narrowing down your options.

Although geography is an important factor in the college experience, we advise students not to overemphasize location as it might possibly keep you from looking at some good-fit schools.

What size school do you want to attend?

Colleges vary greatly in size from a few thousand students to tens of thousands. The size of the student body can impact the feel of the campus, the intimacy of the classroom setting, the social life outside of the classroom, and nearly all other aspects of the college experience. Deciding the size of school you prefer can make it easier to fine-tune your research so you find exactly what you’re looking for quicker.

How much are you willing to spend on education?

Cost is another major factor to think about before researching universities. Most colleges have transparent tuition costs clearly outlined on their official websites, giving high schoolers an accurate idea of how much they would need to spend if accepted.

But you also need to take into account any tuition assistance, scholarships, or grants you could receive. Subtracting this amount from the overall tuition cost can give you an accurate idea of how much it would cost to attend. Schools that fall outside of your projected range can be taken off your research list.

6 Steps for Researching College Options Effectively

Once you have a general idea of what kind of college you want to attend, you can begin your actual research. Again, you don’t need to have a perfectly clear idea of your ideal school. During your research, you’ll gain a better understanding of what you want to find in a university. Here are some steps you can follow to improve your research for colleges:

1. Consult official college and university websites.

The most accurate resource for researching college options is the official websites of the universities. Once you come across a potential university or when you simply want to research one in more depth, these websites are one of the best places to start. You’ll find a plethora of information on these sites including:

  • Tuition costs
  • Application requirements
  • Submission deadlines
  • Early Action/Early Decision information 
  • Information for international students
  • Major and minors
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Sports and intramurals
  • Student body size and demographics
  • And much, much more.

There’s no doubt you can find this information elsewhere, but you can’t always rely on its validity. When you visit the official website of a college, you can rest assured you’re getting updated and accurate information because it’s curated by the college itself. Many schools even offer some helpful tips for students when applying to the university which can give you some helpful pointers if you were to end up applying in the future.

2. Dive deep into academic offerings.

Academics aren’t the only consideration to make when researching colleges, but it is one of the most important. After all, the primary point of a college education is just that…to receive a world-class education. But it’s not only the quality of the education you’re looking for. The school’s academic offerings also need to line up with your interests, strengths, and goals.

A female student in the library with her laptop in front of her is writing.

Start off by gaining a better understanding of a school’s academic landscape overall by answering some of the following questions:

  • How many majors and minors are offered?
  • How many departments or schools is the college divided into?
  • Is the school known for its rigorous courses?
  • How big are the classes?
  • What’s the faculty-to-student ratio?

Once you have a strong understanding of the general academic make-up of the school, you can start narrowing down your research pertaining to what you want to study. Here are some helpful questions to consider:

  • What courses are required for your major?
  • Do these courses pique your interest?
  • How much funding does the department receive?
  • What internship or research opportunities are there?
  • Can you design your own major?

Wherever you end up applying, this information will come in handy. Admissions officers will want to know why you chose their university out of all the other viable options. You’ll need to mention specific courses, majors, research opportunities, and other academic (or non-academic) offerings that motivated you to apply.

When you can clearly explain to admissions officers why you’re a good match for the school, it’ll make it easier for them to see you as a viable candidate to attend.

3. Look for reviews from students.

What do you do before purchasing anything online or before going to any restaurant? Check reviews online! So, why should going to college be any different? Yes, researching college options is way more in-depth and important than choosing a tasty lunch place but the point about reviews rings true all the same.

No matter how impressive a school sounds on official websites, the experience of attending the school could be completely different than you’d expect. Fortunately, there are more than enough resources online to learn about the direct experiences of previous students. Reddit forums, Quora pages, and Facebook pages dedicated to certain universities are great places to start.

Two female students in a classroom are talking to each other.

It’s important to take each student’s explanation with a grain of salt either positive or negative because everybody’s experience is different. However, this information can help you identify patterns that all students seem to mention.

Maybe you notice that most students mentioned the academic rigor or competitiveness of the university. Or perhaps you see most people talking about how enjoyable the extracurricular culture is at the school. Identifying these trends can give you a better idea of what it’s like to actually attend school.

4. Consult other resources.

We’ve already mentioned a few high-quality resources students can consult when researching college options, but there’s no way to include all of the possible resources here. There are just too many which is good news for you! In addition to official school websites, here are just a few other highly informative and helpful resources you can consider using when researching college options:

  • School newspapers
  • College-specific brochures
  • College guides
  • College books
  • Personal blogs
  • Newsletters

Consulting more than one source exposes you to more information, improving your research overall. Limiting your research to a single resource, no matter how high-quality or accurate limits the amount of information you

While researching, keep in mind that all sources or materials could be flawed in some way. You should not trust any single reference to guide you in your research.

Instead, familiarize yourself with as many sources as possible to gain an objective and broad understanding of the data and choices facing you. Of course, one of the best ways to research a school is to experience it firsthand through a campus visit. Check out our article on tips for a successful college visit.

5. Keep an ongoing list of potential colleges.

Researching colleges effectively isn’t just about how you look for information and where you look for information. It’s also about how you apply that knowledge to further narrow down your choices of potential colleges.

With thousands of colleges and universities across the US, it’s impossible to research all of them. The best way to narrow down your options is to pick some non-negotiable factors that a school must-have for you to want to attend.

A male student making a list on his notebook.

This could be the location of the school, the size of the campus, its proximity to a city, its academic offerings, and any other strong preferences you have. These characteristics can help you create a filter through which you can funnel all of the potential schools that you come across during your research.

The ultimate goal is to end with a list of around 10 colleges and universities which she would be more than happy to attend. This doesn’t mean that you’ll apply to all of those universities. This list is just a strategy for organizing all of the knowledge you gain and putting it to use by actively narrowing down your college options.

6. Consult a college admissions professional.

College admissions experts are your secret weapon when researching college effectively. These professionals are an excellent resource for determining which colleges and universities are worth applying to. What’s a college entrance expert and how do they assist in your college research?

A college admissions professional specializes in helping students get into the college of their choice. They’re highly experienced experts with vast knowledge of colleges and universities across the country, making these professionals an excellent resource for high schoolers embarking on the college research journey.

Instead of simply providing you with general information that you can find online about schools, a college entrance expert will work with you individually to determine the best colleges and universities based on your specific circumstances.

They’ll take into account your unique academic strengths, preferences, and goals to provide meaningful and personalized suggestions. Most college students aren’t aware of these experts and miss out on the opportunity as a result. You won’t want to pass up this choice when researching college options.

Applying for college doesn’t have to be difficult!

Every year, millions of students start preparing for college applications. For many, this exciting process is marred by a sense of uncertainty, confusion, and stress. Without a clear sense of direction, high schoolers often feel stuck.

That’s where AdmissionSight can help! For the past 10 years, we’ve been helping students just like you gain a better understanding of the college admissions process and improve their chances of getting into the school of their dreams.

We offer a range of services specifically catered to the academic strengths, goals, and preferences of all students we work with. These services are designed to improve your application with the ultimate goal of increasing your chances of getting into your first-choice school.

Whether you need some guidance when choosing high school classes and extracurriculars, pointers when deciding on a college summer program, professional assistance when preparing standardized tests, or anything else related to the college admissions process, we’ve got you covered!

Contact us today to set up a free consultation. We will be happy to answer all of your questions.



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