How To Do College Research

Person sitting at laptop researching colleges
May 19, 2022
Assessing The College “Fit”When Should You Start Your College Research?How Your Parents Can Help With College ResearchHow to Research Colleges: A Step-by-Step ProcessWhich Schools Should You Apply To? How To DecideCollege Research FAQsHow to Do College Research: Start Now and Don’t Give Up


Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/3/22

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are more than 4,000 U.S.  colleges and universities today. Needless to say, performing college research and picking the perfect college isn’t as easy as picking what you’re having for dinner! 

Every university has something unique to offer, but there are many constituents to consider when choosing the right college for you. Without further adieu, let’s talk about how to research a university!

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Assessing The College “Fit”

You’re not alone if you’re unsure what to look for when researching colleges. Before starting your college research, there is a checklist of factors to keep in mind, including: 

Before beginning your search, do some self-reflection. Knowing what you are looking for and what you want out of college will help you narrow down your college choices. Here are some questions to ask when researching colleges.

What Do You Want to Study?

This is a loaded question, especially if you plan to attend college directly after high school. It is difficult to determine what you want to do with the rest of your life at the young, ripe age of 18. And it’s okay if you don’t quite know yet! But if you have some general ideas, they can help you in your college search. 

Think about what classes and extracurriculars you enjoyed most in high school. Consider your hobbies and what you like to spend your time doing, and try to line up your major with your area of interest. Consider the examples below: 

If you still feel stuck or confused about what you want to do through and after college, consider speaking with an admissions consultant. Speaking to expert advisors will give you a better insight into things you might enjoy pursuing as a career. 

Do You Want to Stay Close to Home or Move Far Away?

Deciding where you want to study is another large determining factor in deciding which college you want to attend. Some people are reluctant to move far away from home and leave their families, and some people can’t wait to get out, explore, and live on their own in a brand new place. 

It all depends on you and your preferences. Starting as a freshman in college in a new place will be scary, regardless of whether you are a three-hour drive or plane ride away from home. 

Think about how often you will want to visit home and how you will travel from school to home. You need to consider and decide on this before beginning your college search because it will make your search much easier. 

If you know you want to stay close to home and you live in, for example, New York, you can significantly narrow down your search by opting out of schools on the West coast. 

What Extracurriculars Are Important to You?

When considering what to research when looking at colleges, think about what types of activities you like to do. Colleges offer all sorts of excellent programs and have extracurricular opportunities that could help you make your decision. 

Some extracurricular programs can even help you pay for college. For example, are you interested in sports? Many colleges have excellent athletic opportunities, from simply participating on a team to earning athletic scholarships. From theater clubs to hockey teams, you should play into your interests and strengths from theater clubs to hockey teams when doing college research.

Considering what you’ll be doing when you’re not in class can be extremely helpful when making your college selection, especially if you plan to attend a college away from home. Extracurriculars are a great way to make new friends and fit into your new community. 

Do You Want to Attend a Small or Large College?

This is an important question for many reasons. Do you want to attend a big school with a large campus? This might take some time to learn your way around campus, and your classes will also be large. 

Your Introduction to History class may be in a spacious lecture hall with a few hundred students, and your teacher most likely won’t recognize you or your name throughout the semester.

Or do you want to attend a smaller school with a tinier campus? A small campus will be easier to navigate, and class sizes will be significantly smaller, with more room for class discussion. But smaller campuses (especially the smaller you go) may feel like a high school setting, where everyone knows everyone. 

There is no right or wrong choice here. Once again, it is all based on what you prefer. Think about the kind of relationship you want to have with fellow students and teachers, and think of which campus setting you would prefer.  By deciding which would be a better setting for you, you are making your college search easier!

What is Your Budget?

Once again, this isn’t necessarily an easy question to answer. But having a general idea of your financial limitations when it comes to attending college is a huge help. Sit down with your parents or a school counselor to discuss this question in-depth, and take notes. If you are financially limited, it isn’t the end of the world.

FAFSA and other financial aid programs are an immense help in attending college and can significantly cut your costs. However, you will have to pay these loans back after completing your degree, so keep this in mind. 

Another question to ask when researching colleges is: How were your grades in high school? If you do well, you can qualify for scholarships at many different schools for your GPA, ACT and SAT scores, and more. Many colleges have scholarships you can apply for as well. 

Another thing to research when looking at colleges is the state you live in. Schools may offer a reduced rate for in-state tuition, which could greatly benefit you. Once you know your financial limitations and tuition costs at colleges, it will be easier to sift through options when narrowing down your search. 

Do You Want to Attend College in a Rural or Urban Setting?

The college you choose and attend is where you will spend the next four–possibly more–years of your life. Hence, it is essential to look at the city or town you will be residing in outside of just looking at colleges for their academic institution alone. You are going to be spending a lot of time here!

Do you prefer the hustle-and-bustle of a busy city? Or do you prefer the quiet, peaceful aura of a small, rural town? 

Financials are important to consider regarding which type of setting you would like to attend college in. Big cities tend to be more expensive compared to rural settings. These additional costs add up in many big-city college towns in terms of: 

You can also think about your hobbies and what you like to do in your free time, and what college cities and towns offer those activities. It is essential to think about your personal and academic growth. Obtaining a college degree is hard work, but you should still be able to have fun with it as well!

Once you have answered all of these questions, your college research will be much easier--and you haven’t even started yet! Knowing what you want means you understand what you are looking for. With all of this in mind, you will find a college that fits all of your needs. 

What Do Your High School Stats Look Like?

Before beginning your college research, something important to remember is the importance of your high school statistics when applying to colleges. If you’re serious about applying to a college, you must ensure your high school statistics align with that college’s standards. 

So, when should students begin researching and applying for colleges? Most colleges have minimum GPA requirements and minimum ACT/SAT requirements. If a school has its GPA requirement set to a 3.0 and you graduated with a 2.9, this is another way to weed out insufficient college choices. So, students should begin researching colleges during school to set grade targets.

Most colleges also offer class profiles for incoming applicants to compare to, which will help you with your college research. Here are a few examples of these class profiles from the University of Notre Dame and Flagler College.

Pie chart and statistics outlining the University of Notre Dame's 2024 Class Profile
University of Notre Dame Class Profile

Graphic with statistics outlining Flagler College's 2024 Class Profile
Flagler College Class Profile

When Should You Start Your College Research?

Starting your college research as early as possible is the way to go. Obviously, as a freshman in high school, you have four whole years before college, and you don’t need to be meticulously researching colleges and universities. So, your junior year of high school is when you will want to begin your college research properly.

It is vital to take note of things as you go through high school. Think about the classes and extracurriculars you enjoy. Think about what you could see yourself doing career-wise. Noticing these aspects of yourself and exploring them will help you in your search. 

Your junior year of high school is when you will be taking your ACT or SAT exams, which are important for college applications. After considering determining factors (such as the above list) and speaking with your parents and school counselors about your financial situation, you can dive into your research regarding which colleges and universities might be a good fit for you. 

Your high school will likely be hosting college fairs as well, and these are going to be a massive help for your college research. However, you don’t want to start your college research with these fairs. Going in blind will only hinder you. Research the colleges at the fairs, and make a list of the ones that interest you. 

Make sure you reflect on the questions above to know what you are looking for when going to these events. Having the chance to converse with staff and recruiters from various colleges and universities is a great chance to look at what each campus offers. 

Junior year is your time to explore, ask questions, and learn about the colleges that are potentially good fits for you. Senior year is the time to finalize your college list, apply to each (deadlines for applications are typically between November and January), and make a final decision. 

How Your Parents Can Help With College Research

Most students do not know how to research a college properly, and that’s okay! Your parents can do a lot to help you with college research. Even if you are a first-generation college student, they can still be a resource to you! Sitting down with your parents before you begin your college search is essential.

You must understand your budget and any other financial limitations you may have. Ask yourself the following questions: 

These are all questions that need to be addressed before you begin your search. Sitting down with your parents to answer the quesitns above will help you when narrowing down your list of potential colleges. 

Your parents can also help you with the research process. Once you have had a chance to self-reflect and make sense of your largest determining factors, you and your parents can begin to search for colleges that fit your most pressing needs. 

Your parents may have great tips on how to research a college if they have attended college, so their guidance can help you immensely. 

How to Research Colleges: A Step-by-Step Process

So, how do you start researching colleges? And what should you look for when searching for colleges? Researching colleges is a big job, so it’s important to take it one step at a time. Here is our step-by-step guide on how to do college research. 

Step 1: Identify your priorities

By identifying your priorities and determining factors, you will narrow down your list of colleges before even beginning your research. You should consider the area of study, location, size, and financial berth first and foremost.  

Knowing what you are looking for will help weed out what you do not want. For example, if you have decided a small school will be the best fit for you, this eliminates all large schools from your search. 

If you have decided you want to go to college far, far away from your hometown, you can rule out all the colleges in your home state or the relative surrounding area. Focusing on what is most important to you in a college or university is the first step in beginning your college research. 

Step 2: Begin looking up colleges and preparing a list

A great way to begin researching colleges is by attending college fairs. Most high schools offer them every year, and this is a fantastic opportunity you should take advantage of if offered to you. 

Once you have identified your determining factors, your search will become much more manageable. Having the chance to talk to people that work for these colleges and universities will give you a much better insight into each one, and you will be able to tell which ones seem like potential options and which ones don’t. 

Go into your college fairs with a list of colleges you are sure you want to speak to and bring a pad of paper. Take notes on each college you talk to along the following lines: 

Once you leave, you will be able to narrow down your list of potential colleges considerably. 

If your high school doesn’t hold college fairs, you can do research from home just the same. If you want a little more help than just manually searching each college, consider contacting an admissions consultant or academic advisor to help navigate your search. 

Take note of the colleges that stand out to you while researching. This will be the beginning of your “college list,” or the colleges you will apply to when the time comes.

Step 3: Narrow down your list

Once you have following the steps listed above, you are ready to narrow down your list to the colleges you are sure you will apply to when the time comes. 

The colleges to which you are going to apply to should be colleges where you can see yourself thrive. They should meet all your determining factors. You should not be compromising any of these, for this is where you will spend the next four years of your life. Narrowing down your list can free up time to do thorough research when looking at colleges.

Now that we’ve covered what to research when looking at colleges, let’s talk about what schools you should apply to. 

Which Schools Should You Apply To? How To Decide

Choosing the colleges you will be applying to is no simple feat. It takes a lot of reflection, preparation, and research. If you are still struggling to make decisions, take a trip to visit the potential colleges to which you are applying. Sometimes a physical visit will help you envision if the school is a good fit for you. 

When you go on these college visits, bring a pad of paper with you. Take notes and ask lots of questions. 

If you are a part of a college tour, the person leading it is likely a student at that college themself, and this is an excellent opportunity for you to see the college through a current student’s eyes. Being able to tour a campus and see everything for yourself should help you in your college research process.

College Research FAQs

Do you still have questions on how to research colleges? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions on how to research colleges. If you have further questions about what to look for when researching colleges, speak with an academic advisor or book an appointment with an experienced admissions consultant

1. How many colleges should I be applying to?

There is no specific number that you need to be shooting for while applying to colleges. However, most students typically apply to 5-7 schools. When preparing your final list of colleges, make sure you have some “safe” schools, some “probable” schools, and--if you want--some “dream” schools. 

2. How do I know if a college is a good “fit” for me?

Once you have identified all of your determining factors, keep these in mind as a “checklist” while researching colleges and universities individually. If you are researching a college and it meets the needs of all your determining factors, chances are it is a great fit for you! If you are still unsure, make a trip to visit the university so you can see it and learn about it in person.

3. Are colleges and universities the same thing?

Although the terms are typically used interchangeably, colleges and universities are not the same thing. Colleges only offer undergraduate degrees, whereas universities offer undergraduate degrees as well as graduate degrees. 

4. What is the difference between an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree?

An undergraduate degree is the general degree pursued after a high school education is completed, and it will lead to an associate’s (two-year) degree or bachelor’s (four-year) degree. A graduate degree is more specialized and is pursued after an undergraduate degree is obtained, leading to a master’s or doctoral degree. 

5. Will a college let me know if I am not accepted? 

If you were not accepted to a college you applied to, you would receive a letter notifying you, just as you would receive a letter notifying you of an acceptance. 

6. What is the biggest mistake students make when choosing a college?

The biggest mistake you could make when choosing a college is picking a college for the wrong reasons. When you are performing your college research, make sure you are keeping your wants and needs in mind. Following what your parents want or what your boyfriend or girlfriend wants over what you want will ultimately hinder you.

How to Do College Research: Start Now and Don’t Give Up

Choosing a college is no easy feat, and it is not a decision you make overnight! Although it may be complicated and extensive, doing the necessary college research is essential to making your final choice in what college or university you will attend. 

It is crucial to ask yourself those questions and identify what is most important to you in a college or university. If you have identified your determining factors and make the time to perform the necessary research, you will find a college that is the best fit for you.

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