How to Research Colleges the Right Way

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Imagine you’re selecting your next vacation spot. How do you decide?

You might just choose some place you’ve heard of before, like Paris, Rome, Cancun, etc. Lots of people visit those places, so they must be pretty great, right?

But there’s more to consider. What do you really know about the cultures of those places? How much will the trips cost? What’s the weather like in those cities this time of year?

Like a good vacation, a good college match requires the proper research. Sure, you can hope to get a room at an exclusive, 5-star property in the Maldives, but will that vacation really be THAT much better than the Bahamas?

Here’s what you need to know while researching a range of colleges where you can be happy:

1. Prestige Isn’t Everything

Famous colleges are just that: famous. Not necessarily better. Ivy League schools are highly respected, but they’re not the right fit for everyone, and more importantly, they’re not realistic shots for most students.  The Ivy Leagues get the best students, but there’s little evidence that they do anything different from other colleges. In fact there’s evidence that Ivy League grads are no happier, don’t earn more money, and don’t get as good of an education as students who attend other colleges.

The truth is that you can get a quality education and college experience no matter what school you choose. Worry less about impressing your friends and neighbors and focus on places where you (or your child) will be happy and productive.

2. Find Your Admissions Fit

Take some time to compare your GPA and standardized test scores to the averages for different colleges.

To have a realistic shot of getting in, your scores should be at or above the averages for a given college. For example, if you wanted to attend the University of Southern California, you would want a GPA of 3.7 (unweighted) and either a 33 ACT or a 1530 SAT.

We’re not saying it’s impossible to get into a school with higher average stats than you, but using this gauge will help you find match schools where you can excel.

The final list should include 3 Likely (schools where you’re substantially above the average test scores AND GPA’s), 3 Match (schools where you are at or slightly above the numbers) and 3 Reach schools (schools where you are at or slightly below the numbers).

3. Find Your Social Fit

Academics are just one facet of your college experience. Before making your choice, you’ll want to find out what students at different schools like to do for fun.

Let’s consider a school like Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth. If you’re looking for rowdy football games, booming Greek life, and faith-based activities, then TCU might be the place for you.

But other students might feel more at home in a place like Emerson, a small liberal arts school in Boston. If you want to choreograph routines with a dance company, DJ on the radio, or form an improv comedy troupe, then Emerson might be right up your alley.

Princeton Review offers many different ranking systems, ranging from “Most Politically Active Students” to “Best Campus Food,” which should help you narrow down your choices based on campus culture and social scene.        


4. Find Your Economic Fit

College can be expensive, and whether you like it or not, money matters in the selection process.

You’ll want to find schools within your cost range that also offer financial aid. There are websites like finaid.org/calculators that help you determine the projected cost for different colleges. The website also provides guidance on making a savings plan and taking out loans.

Remember: don’t just look at the sticker price; it’s also important to consider the amount of aid each student gets.

If you’re hoping to subsidize your tuition through scholarships and merit-based aid, the FastWeb scholarship matching service is also a useful tool.


5. Find Your Geographic Fit

You won’t spend all four years on campus or in the classroom, so it’s important to think about the environment surrounding the school.

Have you ever lived outside of sunny San Diego? Do you know that snow only looks pretty when it first falls? (then it turns into brown slush).

In your new city, will there be a uniform demographic, or lots of diversity? Is it in a liberal or conservative part of the country? Will you be near the ocean, or mountains, or deserts? Is it in the middle of nowhere, or in the heart of a thriving metropolis?

Its proximity to you and your hometown might be important as well. How far away from home are you willing to go? How often do you want to visit family?

This outlook will range widely between students. Some will be dying to get away, while others feel fine being homebodies. Just take some time to reflect and decide what’s best for you.

6. Consider Smaller Colleges

Like prestige, size isn’t everything. We encourage you to consider colleges that are the size of your high school. No, we’re not joking.

That might seem really small, but college is so much better than high school. When a college carefully selects each student, everyone could be your best friend.

Smaller schools might have fewer course offerings, but they also have fewer students vying for those offerings. You might be able to get involved with an activity earlier than at a larger school, and it will probably be easier to stand out and distinguish yourself.

U.S. News and World Report provides a list of the country’s top liberal arts colleges. That’s a great place to start your research into smaller schools.

If you’re feeling lost in your college search, we hope our advice can serve your as Frommer’s Travel Guide as you research and select your college destination!    

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