Jump-Start a Stalled College Search

Identifying must-have characteristics and deal-breakers can help move along a college search.

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High school students can use social media and other Internet resources to further hone their college search.
High school students can use social media and other Internet resources to further hone their college search.

Some students know exactly which college they want to attend. It could be Dad's alma mater, a top vocal performance school or one with an amazing surfing spot right outside the dorms.

Many students, however, reach their final years of high school only to realize that they are paralyzed by the thousands of possible four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. So, how does one even begin to narrow down the options in this daunting search? 

[Create a college search to-do list during high school.] 

The first step in getting your stalled search moving is forgetting about the colleges for a moment and focusing on yourself. Evaluating the university features that are most important to you can be challenging, so reach out to your network and get some firsthand experiences. 

It doesn't have to be an immediate relative or friend – think of your friend's older sibling, a co-worker at your part-time job or a neighbor. Those who have been through the college search process can easily explain what kinds of choices you have in all kinds of elements of a school. 

Additionally, identify the deal-breakers that would automatically disqualify a school from your list. 

[Here are seven questions to ask about your college search.] 

Take both the positive features and deal-breakers you identified and use them as keywords in searches for colleges. Some features, such as student body population, metro area population and tuition will be easier to research on a database that is solely dedicated to statistics for higher education. 

If you want more anecdotal perspectives, check out alumni groups on LinkedIn or student groups on Facebook and browse the discussions. Alumni in particular are usually more than happy to talk up their school to a prospective student, so don't be afraid to ask. 

You never know what hidden information you might learn about the school. 

If you have no idea what you want to study or even a general idea of what you're looking for, think about where you want to be. 

Then, limit your search geographically. You could search Google Maps for all the schools that are within 500 miles of your parents' home, if that is a distance with which you are comfortable, for example. Doing a Google Maps search of an area you're interested in could lead you to some new school names. 

Additionally, determine the various modes of transportation available to and from certain schools, particularly for the ones that are farther away from your hometown. Can you easily secure a plane ticket? Is a road trip feasible? 

[Find out how to prepare for college during high school.] 

Different schools have different admissions benchmarks. Perhaps the most important step to narrowing down your choices is to fairly assess which schools you can realistically gain acceptance into and which ones you cannot. 

Look at the statistics for common SAT and ACT scores, GPAs, extracurricular requirements and class ranks among accepted students. You don't want to waste your time researching a school further if the required test scores are far higher or lower than the scores you received. 

ACT and Parchment offer just two of the many free college search tools that enable students to find schools that match their academic profile. 

Overall, remember that if you keep your search focused on you more than on the schools, you will be well on your way to a perfect match. 

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.