10 Tips for Starting Your College Search

Finding the right school includes paying attention to yourself and taking it one step at a time.

By and + More

Many students think picking a college is just a question of SATs and ACTs, GPAs and extracurricular activities, the Ivy League and college rankings. And, to be sure, all of these can go into one's choice of college. But much more important than any of these is the "fit,"­the finding of a college where you will feel comfortable and thrive. To help you start your quest for the perfect college for you, we've invited visiting blogger Marilee Jones, former dean of admissions at MIT and coauthor of the book Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond, to share her insights:

If you are a high school junior, it's time to think about college. With more than 4,000 colleges to pick from, looking for the right college can seem overwhelming­—but it's actually an important experience because it will lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself as you gain confidence in your ability to make good decisions. The key is to take it one step at a time. Here are 10 tips to prepare you for a great college search experience:

1. Observe yourself. There is a college for everyone in the United States. In order to find ones that suit your style, you first need to know more about yourself. Look at how you learn, the way you conduct your social life, even what you do to recharge your batteries. Ask yourself questions: Under what circumstances do I learn best? Do I prefer to socialize with a group or one on one? When I'm burned out, do I need to go out into a crowd or shut myself in my room alone? Take notes. These answers will help you focus quickly on schools that match you best.

2. Become familiar with your internal guidance system (IGS). All humans are born with an internal guidance system­, also known as intuition or a "gut feel,"­ that helps us make good decisions. It's simple to use: Take a moment and sit quietly. Now think of something that makes you happy, like eating your favorite food. Notice how your body reacts. (When I'm thinking about a "Yes" activity, my body moves forward and my head and chest lift up a bit.) Now think of something that makes you unhappy, such as doing a chore you dislike. Notice what your body is doing. (My body contracts and crunches in.) Your IGS is always talking to you through your body, and though these signals are subtle, they are always true, and they will help you make good decisions about college.

3. Use your imagination. The other important element in helping you craft your search is your imagination. What do you imagine college to be like? What do you think the campus will look like? What will the students be like? How do you imagine the faculty will treat you? What sorts of friends do you think you will have? Your imagination is leading you in the direction of your yearnings, which will help you make the right choice of school in the end.

4. Look for the cultural match. Every college, like every community and every family, has its own culture, and you should look for a college whose cultural values are consistent with your own. For example, some colleges uphold tradition, but others reject the very notion. Some are religious at their core; others are firmly secular. As you evaluate a school's website and printed material, look for signals that reveal those values. As you tune into this concept of culture, you will quickly begin to sort schools into "Yes" and "No" groups.

5. Take one step at a time. The college search is a long journey, but if you take one step at a time, you won't feel overwhelmed. Do one thing related to the college search each day. This can be as small as imagining your college experience or as large as visiting a college campus. Just take your time, and let the experiences build on themselves.

6. Use your team. You can't do this alone. Ask for help early and often. You should have a guidance counselor at your high school to help you think through your choices, your parents to love and support you, even college admissions officers to answer your questions. Make these people part of your team.

7. Confront your fears as you go. You will certainly feel fear and judgment as you evaluate colleges. You may feel that you aren't smart, ambitious, athletic, involved, or creative enough as you look at the happy, smiling faces of college students in catalogues and websites. Notice your fears as they surface, and face them straight on. Remember that no one is everything. No one is perfect, and perfection is not expected. Keep thinking that there is a college out there perfectly suited to you and that you have plenty of time to find it.

8. Maintain your privacy. It's important that you keep your college choices to yourself, at least at first. Others may discourage you for their own reasons, and their negativity can knock you off course. It is no one else's business where you want to apply to college. Protect that part of you.

9. Don't take college admissions advice from your friends … ever. In a recent survey, a shocking 79 percent of college students admitted to making college decisions based on the advice of friends. In most cases, your friends don't know any more about how college admissions works than you do, so don't allow yourself to be swayed by their opinions or information (which usually is just gossip, after all). Rely on your team, and make your own decisions.

10. Be proud of who you are. You are utterly unique and have been designed that way on purpose because there is a need for each one of us in this world. Regardless of your grades or SAT scores or looks or talents or family situation, you have an obligation as a human to grow and contribute in your own unique way. Whisper to yourself every day how proud you are of yourself. Look for a college that will love, honor, and want you.

© Copyright 2009 Professors' Guide LLC. All rights reserved.