How To Do College Research

Person sitting at laptop researching colleges
December 21, 2022
How to Research Colleges: A Step-by-Step ProcessWhat to Look For When Researching CollegesWhen Should You Start Your College Research?Which Schools Should You Apply To? How To DecideCollege Research FAQs


Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/3/22

How do you find your best-fit college? And when should you start researching and applying to colleges? Read on to have all your college research questions answered! 

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

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

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

How to research colleges: step-by-step

So, how do you start researching colleges? Here’s our step-by-step guide on how to do college research. 

Step 1: Identify Your Priorities

You’ll narrow your list before beginning your research by identifying your priorities and determining factors. These are the factors you should consider first: 

Knowing what you’re looking for helps eliminate what you don’t want. For example, if you’ve decided you want to go to college far away from your hometown, you can rule out colleges in your home state. 

Focusing on what’s most important to you 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: many high schools offer them annually.

Once you’ve identified your preferences, your search will become much more manageable. Talking to people that work for different colleges will provide the relevant insights you need to determine possible options. 

Go into your college fairs with your preliminary list and a pad of paper. Take notes as you learn more about each school, such as: 

If your high school doesn’t hold college fairs, you can do research from home. If you want more help than searching on your own, consider contacting an admissions consultant to help navigate your search. 

Take our free & interactive college selection quiz to easily find a list of universities that are right for you! 

Step 3: Narrow Down Your List

You’re now ready to narrow your list to the colleges you’re sure you want to apply to.

The colleges you’ll apply to should be places where you can see yourself thrive and should meet your preferences. Remember, this is where you’ll spend the next four years of your life! 

What to Look For When Researching Colleges

Things to look for when researching colleges

You’re not alone if you’re unsure what to look for when researching colleges. Before starting your college research, consider these factors: 

Before beginning your search, do some self-reflection. Here are some questions to ask when researching colleges.

What Do You Want to Study?

It’s challenging to determine what you want to do with the rest of your life so early. And it’s okay if you don’t know yet! But if you have some general ideas, they can help direct your search. 

Consider what classes, hobbies, and extracurriculars you enjoy most. Then, you can try to align a major with your interest areas. Remember, you generally don’t have to choose a major until your second year of college, but identifying your interests can help you find programs you’d love to attend. 

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

Some people are reluctant to move away from home, and some can’t wait to explore and live independently in a brand-new place. Going to a college in a new place can be intimidating, whether you’re a three-hour drive or a plane ride away from home. 

Think about how often you want to visit home and potential travel time and expenses. For example, if you live in New York and want to stay close to home, you can search for in-state schools like Columbia or NYU. 

picture of Columbia University in New York
Source: Columbia University 

What Extracurriculars Are Important to You?

Colleges offer many 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.

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. If you want to attend a large school like the University of Florida, your introductory classes may be in a spacious hall with a few hundred students, and your teacher most likely won’t recognize you or your name throughout the semester.

Picture of the entrance of the University of Florida
Source: U.S. News

On the other hand, a small campus is easier to navigate, and class sizes will be significantly smaller. But smaller campuses may feel like a high school setting, where everyone knows everyone. 

There’s no right or wrong choice here. Once again, it’s based on your preferences. Consider the relationships you want with students and teachers: do you value a close-knit community, or do you prefer some anonymity?

What is Your Budget?

Having a general idea of your college financial limitations is a huge help. Sit down with your parents or a school counselor to discuss your budget. If you’re financially limited, it isn’t the end of the world.

FAFSA and other financial aid programs can significantly cut your costs. However, remember that you’ll have to repay these loans after graduation. Your GPA, ACT, and SAT scores may also qualify you for scholarships that you don’t have to repay,

You may also be able to make college more affordable by studying in-state: some schools offer reduced rates for in-state students. 

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

Since you’ll spend four years or more in college, it’s essential to consider the city or town you’ll be living in. Do you prefer the hustle-and-bustle of a busy city? Or do you prefer the quiet, peaceful aura of a rural town? 

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: 

It’s also essential to think about opportunities to explore your interests and hobbies. Obtaining a college degree is hard work, but you should still be able to have fun where you live!

What Do Your High School Stats Look Like?

Honestly evaluating your stats can help you choose colleges. While many colleges don’t have SAT/ACT or GPA cutoffs, comparing your stats to past admitted students can help gauge your competitiveness. 

Here are a few examples of these class profiles from the University of Notre Dame and Flagler College:

Infographic outlining the University of Notre Dame's 2026 Class Profile
Source: Notre Dame
Graphic with statistics outlining Flagler College's 2024 Class Profile
Source: Flagler College

When Should You Start Your College Research?

You should start your college research as early as possible. Your junior year of high school is a good time to begin your college research. Your junior/senior years of high school are when you’ll take the ACT or SAT, which is important for college applications. Your scores and GPA can help you determine safety, target, and reach schools. 

Junior year is your time to explore, ask questions, and learn about colleges. Senior year is the time to finalize your college list and apply: it takes time to find the right college!

Which Schools Should You Apply To? How To Decide

Finalizing your college list is no simple feat. It takes reflection, preparation, and research. If you’re struggling to make decisions, planning college visits can help. Sometimes a physical visit can help you determine if the school is a good fit for you. 

When you go on these college visits, take notes and ask lots of questions. As a bonus, talking to the person leading a college tour is an excellent opportunity for you to see the college through a current student’s eyes. 

Looking for some quick ideas on which schools you should apply to? Our College Selection Quiz can help you find your ideal school! 

College Research FAQs

Do you still have questions about school research and how to find your best-fit college? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions. 

1. How Many Colleges Should I Be Applying To?

There’s no specific number that you need to be shooting for. However, most students typically apply to 7-12 schools

2. How Do I Know If a College Is a Good “Fit” for Me?

Keep your preferences as a “checklist” while researching colleges. If you’re researching a college that meets your criteria, it’s a great fit! If you’re still unsure, try to visit the school so you can see it and learn more in person.’’

3. How Do You Do College Research? 

College research can take many forms: for example, you can research school websites, attend college fairs, and visit schools. 

4. Why Is College Research Important?

College research ensures that the colleges you apply to are schools you’d actually like to attend. You’ll spend at least four years at the college you choose: you want to ensure you’ll enjoy yourself!

5. What Is the Best Source for Researching Colleges?

Some of the best online college search resources include the College Navigator and application portals like the Common and Coalition Apps. 

6. What Do You Look for When Researching Colleges?

When you research colleges, you should consider: 

You should also consider the college’s extracurricular activities or other opportunities and the school’s culture. 

7. How Do I Start a College Search?

Starting your research can feel daunting, but once you determine your preferences, you can start wherever you like. Look at school websites, compare schools, and use your stats to build a varied school list. 

8. 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 conducting college research, ensure you keep your wants and needs in mind.

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

Finding the right school isn’t easy, and it’s not something you decide overnight! Doing the necessary research is essential to making the right choice. 

Identifying what’s most important to you in a school is crucial. If you’ve identified your preferences and make the time to perform the necessary research, you’re sure to find the right school for you.

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