According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are about 7,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. How can you choose even a short list of possibilities from among all those opportunities?
Evaluating them one by one is neither practical nor advisable. Instead, treat your search like a boss interviewing job applicants. Create lists of must-have criteria, desirable but optional criteria and characteristics that would automatically disqualify a school from consideration.
When choosing criteria for your college search, there are two broad areas to consider: lifestyle and career goals. Finding a good fit for your lifestyle relies on many nonacademic factors such as location, diversity and intangibles such as the values and expectations the school holds for its students.
[Learn how to use all four years of high school to prep for college.]
Your career goals, by contrast, are more closely related to academics. You don't need to plan an entire career by the time you finish high school, but having a general idea of the fields of study that you find most interesting will help considerably in narrowing the list of possibilities. Even as broad a goal as studying in the liberal arts, social sciences or the hard sciences will help.
The biggest divides in the lifestyle department occur between big state schools and smaller liberal arts schools. Large schools often offer more opportunities because of their greater size and larger pool of resources.
Finding those opportunities can be much harder than at a small school, where a central student activities office can realistically advertise all the goings-on. Small schools can also offer a sense of community that is missing from larger schools.
Introductory biology classes at a large university might have 200 or more students, while the equivalent class at a nearby liberal arts college might have 20 students.
Another important factor that affects lifestyle is the setting of the school – urban, small town or rural. A small school in a rural setting makes student life focus on the school since there are so few alternatives. An urban setting, by contrast, can offer a wide array of opportunities that aren't related to the college, such as theaters, museums and more.
[Find out more tips on finding the best college for you.]
College is more than lifestyle, of course; it's also preparation for a career. To that end, keep in mind that every school will have areas of expertise and weakness.
If you intend to study the sciences, consider schools with active research programs in the specialties that interest you. Pay particular attention to individual departments and professors as you search school websites.
Schools that take research seriously tend to keep their websites up to date. Send emails to individual professors asking the role of undergraduates in their research.
The same advice applies to liberal arts and social sciences. You may not be doing research in a laboratory, but you should attend a school with professors who are actively publishing in their field.
Ask professors about seminars and special topic classes that are available to upper-level students. It is this small-group interaction that is key to an excellent education in the liberal arts.
[Get more advice on the college application process.]
This advice applies equally to big and small schools. You will find large schools with moribund research programs in some fields and small schools with a long list of recent publications from a vibrant community of scholars.
If you're not sure where to start looking, one possibility is to check the LinkedIn profiles of people in the fields you are most interested in. Find early-career professionals and see which schools they attended, and where their first-degree connections attended school.
Don't be afraid to contact people directly and ask for their advice on the top schools in particular fields.
Once you have your list of criteria, including size, education mission and geographic region, use a tool like the College Navigator to focus your search. One significant advantage to using a systematic approach is the possibility that your search will uncover schools that otherwise may never have crossed your radar.
There are many hidden gems that could make a school an excellent fit for you, but you will only find them with a disciplined search.