But you rising seniors already know that, right? That’s because you have been researching colleges for months now, because of the great advice we gave you back in February. 

For many, this is the best part of the college application process, because it’s all about possibilities. Each time you research a college, you’re trying it on for size, seeing if it fits. You can envision the courses you will take. You can picture yourself stretched out on the grass, hanging out with new friends, or in an art studio, or playing intramural softball.

Or, maybe you just can’t. Fine -- move on to the next college.

Devote some time each day to thoroughly explore one or two colleges at a time. Here’s how to begin:

1. Know yourself first. What are you interested in studying? Where do you want to live? Asking yourself a few key questions helps you find the right colleges more efficiently:

  • Biggest interests and passions?
  • Students who are like you, or students who are different from you? Or a mix?
  • Near to or far from home?
  • Four years in one place? Or two years at community college, then transfer? Or, a six-year professional program such as medicine, law or business?
  • One-track school such as conservatory, art or engineering? Or liberal arts and ability to dabble?
  • Large, small or medium-sized campus?
  • Sports as a participant a/o sports as a fan? Or spending Saturdays in the library?
  • Rural, suburban or urban?
  • North, South, East, West, Middle of the country?
  • Four courses a semester? Block system where you totally immerse yourself in one subject at a time? Trimester system? Co-op program where you alternate working and studying?
  • Greek life? (Fraternities/sororities). Or, no togas?
  • Kids who like to study hard? Or kids who like to play hard? Both? Neither?Colleges generous with financial aid? Or that simply cost less? Or is cost not an issue?

Forget online quizzes that tell you what 1950s movie star you are; there are far better tests – free of charge  ̶  that will lend insight into your character, personality, abilities and possible career choices. Naviance’s Do What You Are, the VIA Character Traits questionnaire (www.viacharacter.org) and College Board’s Big Future feature (https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/get-started/know-yourself) are three good ones.

2. Now look at websites and books that feature student reviews and colleges organized by location, state, or major. There are a ton of both out there. Here are just a few.

Books (look for latest edition):
  • Fiske Guide to the Colleges  ̶  comprehensive stats and reviews
  • Insiders’ Guide to the Colleges
  • Princeton Review’s Best 380 Colleges
  • Rugg’s Recommendations – colleges listed by majors
  • Colleges That Change Lives, by Loren Pope
And, of course: the colleges’ own websites. Yes, you’ll want to know the basics: application deadlines, if supplemental essays are required. You’ll also want to know all about their curriculum, their faculty, their students, and their sports, clubs and charities. What books have professors written? What course titles inspire you? Take specific notes, as you will need them for interviews and for the supplemental “Why This College?” essay if required.

3. College Visits

It makes sense to visit colleges in summer because of your freer schedule; but some argue that you’ll get a better sense of what colleges are really like when school is in session during the academic year. This is a decision to be made based on the time constraints of you and your parents. Whenever you go, here are some tips for the most effective visit:

  • Schedule an interview with an admissions officer or even with a professor whose work you are interested in; but only if you’ve thoroughly researched the college and can ask intelligent and specific questions. Do not ask questions that can easily be answered by the college’s website.
  • If you can take a tour separately from your parents, do so. It’s easier to envision yourself at a college when your mother isn’t standing next to you. Also, it’s interesting for both parent and student to compare notes after the visit.
  • Eat a meal in the cafeteria. Visit the town. Try out the college WiFi.
  • Talk to students who do not work for the admissions office. While college tour guides are great, the information they give you is often scripted. It’s helpful to get “unbiased” answers to your questions by asking a student walking through the quad.
  • Most important: take notes!  You think you’ll remember that the gym was great at the College of Wooster, but after a bunch of college visits, it all gets blurry.
After doing some of the above research on a daily basis, you should soon have a nice list of colleges to apply to. You will want some in each category: Reach (schools that are considered a long-shot because your academic credentials are below the average GPA and ACT/SAT scores for accepted freshmen); Match (schools you probably will get into, although there are no guarantees) and Likely or Safety (schools you are reasonably certain that you will get into, although unfortunately there is never a guarantee in college admissions). How do you know which are which? By comparing your grades and test scores with the averages for those schools, which can be found in books like the Fiske Guide listed above, or, if your high school offers Naviance, in the Scattergram feature.

Have fun imagining the possibilities and narrowing your list! Seniors, check back soon for more ways to nail down the college application process before school starts. Juniors, you’re not off the hook – we’ll be talking to you very soon about what you need to be doing this summer to get a jump on the fall.