It’s February which means many of our students are knee-deep in the college search process. It’s an exciting time as we watch our students explore different schools and imagine what life will be like as undergraduates. However, the college search process can also be overwhelming especially in the beginning. “Where do I begin,” “What should I look for in a school?” “How do I know if the school is a good fit?” are just some of the questions we are often asked. Although there isn’t a magic formula, there are steps you can take to identify schools that are right for you…

Start Early

Do yourself a favor and start looking at schools early. We know, it’s hard to imagine what you want in a college when you are only a freshman or sophomore in high school, but the time you spend looking at schools will pay off down the road. Remember, just because you research a school, doesn’t mean you are locked into applying to it, but seeing what a school offers will give you a better understanding of how schools differ and help you identify the things you want in a collegiate experience.

Look for Best-Fit

When it comes to creating a “college list,” the most important thing to consider is fit; how well a school matches your unique interests and needs. When considering characteristics, start off with the basic must-have’s such as size, location, cost and areas of study. The folks at the College Board have created a good search tool to help you zoom in on schools that fit these basic needs. Next, you want to go deep, looking at characteristics that are important to you such as school climate, leadership opportunities, career planning, etc. At NSCC, we look at over 100 characteristics with each student and encourage our students to be reflective about what they really want in a college. When digging deep, consider these questions:
  • Where are you most happy?
  • What helps you thrive?
  • When do you feel most inspired?
  • Where do you want to be 4 years from now?
This quiz from Forbes Magazine can help you get started or feel free to give us a call; we’d be happy to help you curate a list of colleges that fit your unique personality.  

Consider GPA and Test Scores

Use your GPA and test scores as a tool to help you whittle down your list of colleges. Although many schools use a holistic admissions approach, most will also use GPA’s and test scores as a basic “weeding-out” threshold, which means if your numbers are too low, your application might not even be considered. Of course there are exceptions, so if there is a school that really interests you but your grades and / or scores fall well below their average range, don’t rule out the school entirely, but be realistic, knowing your chances of getting in are slim. Likewise, don’t dismiss a school just because your GPA and test scores are on the high end of the school’s average requirements, especially if that college has many of the characteristics you want in a school.

Think Outside the Box

We know it’s tempting to just choose schools that are “name brand” and have a good local reputation. Although we understand this sentiment, it will limit your choices and opportunities. To quote best selling author Frank Bruni, “What you DO in college is much more important than where you get in. Like so many things in life, it’s about the journey, rather than the destination.” Likewise, we also want you to resist the urge to only apply to schools to which your friends are applying.If you walk through the halls of any of many of this nation’s high schools, you’ll see students are all wearing the same college sweatshirts and are applying to all the same colleges. While these are all wonderful schools, they are not right for everyone. So be true to yourself, and skip the mob mentality and research schools with an open mind. What you discover about yourself might just surprise you.

Become a Detective and Research Each School

Get your Nancy Drew on and start doing some deep detective work, researching each school thoroughly. Although the school’s website is a good place to begin, you want to dig deeper, moving beyond the glossy pictures and marketing materials. Check out potential majors, classes, research opportunities, professors and extracurricular activities. Make sure the school has the things that are most important to you whether it’s Greek life, community service clubs, internship opportunities, etc. Watching virtual tours and videos via YouTube can also give you greater insight into a school (most colleges have a dedicated YouTube channel). One word of caution, make sure the video is legit and not a practical joke. Finally, look at each school’s student newspaper, which is a great way to see what’s going on campus. The College Board provides links to each college paper.


Once your list is a manageable size, consider visiting each school that interests you. As we all know, what looks great online doesn’t always translate into a good fit in real life. When visiting a school be sure to participate in the official tour and info session but also do some research on your own, talking to students, sitting in on classes, and if possible arrange to stay overnight in a dorm. For more tips on getting the most out of your visit, be sure to read our blog, 5 Tips for College Campus Visits. As always, we are here to help so if you have questions or want to lean more feel free to contact us anytime.