College Research: A Step-by-Step Guide

Last updated Dec 18, 2023 
| aplustutoring

Choosing what college to attend is a big decision. Not only is it a place you spend four years of your life, but it’s also a place you prepare for your future career while building potentially lifelong friendships. So, of course you want to apply to colleges that are worth the investment of your money and your hopes. But, how? Developing a balanced list of colleges to apply to that meet your social and academic needs requires significant introspection and research, which is why it is important to get started sooner rather than later. In fact, at minimum, it is recommended that students begin their college search a year before application deadlines. With early decision applications typically due in November and regular decision applications due in January, the fall and winter of junior year is an ideal time to get serious about researching colleges. Read on for a guide through the process.

Get to Know Yourself and Your Potential Colleges

While some aspects of your future college might be negotiable, there are likely some things that are deal breakers for you. Maybe you can’t move too far away because you need to be near a loved one. Maybe you can’t take on high tuition and lots of debt because you want to save money and avoid stress. Maybe you want to have access to specific academic opportunities or a chance to participate in a particular sport. Whatever the case may be, you need to determine what your must-haves are. Cost, size, location, and academics are typically the most important factors to consider because they have the most impact; it will be impractical and unsatisfying to attend a college if it falls short on even one of these criteria. Also important, but perhaps less significant, is determining your preferences—what a college offers in terms of its extracurriculars, social life, athletics, housing, and food. Since you are essentially shopping for colleges, try making a “shopping list” of what you’d like in a college divided into what you need (your must-haves) and what you want (your preferences).

Once you have figured out what you’re looking for in a college, you can begin your research. A quality college search doesn’t rely on one or only a few sources of information. Seek out information from online sources, such as Big Future, Naviance, or individual college websites. Check out books at your school (e.g. counseling office, library) or your local library. Attend college fairs and visit colleges (e.g. during a February winter break, spring break, or during the summer). Talk to people, too. Speak to your school counselor, admissions officers, alumni, and current students to learn more about a college, from what it takes to get in to what it’s like to attend.

Keep track of your research findings in one place that is easy to use. You can try A+’s College List Worksheet or you can adapt it for use in a spreadsheet or document of your own design.

Refine and Reflect on Your Research

After identifying the criteria (needs, wants) and resources (online, etc.) for your college search, you should be able to prepare a list of about 20 or more colleges that you’re interested in and want to explore further. To refine your search, you will need to engage with your research and evaluate the results. So, carefully read online or print resources and actively listen and take notes during in-person or virtual information sessions and tours with certain questions in mind, then consider eliminating some colleges if they don’t meet your criteria. Below you will find a list of questions to guide you through this second step of the college search process. 

How well will this college help me pick and prepare for a career? All of the effort you have put into your high school achievements and college applications, and all of the time and money you will spend at college is for the purpose of providing you the knowledge, skills, connections, and credentials that will earn you a personally and financially fulfilling career. Therefore, the answer to the following questions should hold more weight than the rest.

  1. Majors: What majors are offered? Are you allowed to have an undecided major at first or design your own major? What courses are required?
  2. Faculty: If you have a specific major in mind, what is the department like (size, reputation)? Are there any professors whose accomplishments or interests align with your own?
  3. Experiences: What kind of internships and research opportunities are offered? What about studying abroad? Is there an honors program?
  4. Prospects: What is the college’s rate of retention? How many students continue beyond freshman year, and how many graduate in four years? How many students are able to find a job or progress to post-graduate studies (e.g. graduate, medical, law, or business school)?

Will I be able to be happy and thrive as a member of this college’s campus community? Whether you commute or live on campus part or all of your time in college, it’s important that you feel comfortable and connected. So, consider the following questions.

  1. Housing: What years are students required to live on campus (none of them, first year only, after a certain number of years)? What kind of housing is available? For example, is it provided all four years, and are there different options (e.g. single-sex, suites, single rooms, apartments)? How is housing assigned?
  2. Food: Where do students typically eat both on and off campus? Are meal plans required and, if so, how much do they cost and what options are available?
  3. Community: How diverse is the student body (e.g. race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, international students)? What is the college’s approach to diversity in terms of the policies it enforces and the support it offers? Is there Greek life on campus?
  4. Activities: What kinds of sports, clubs, and other activities are available?
  5. Cost: How much will you have to spend on tuition, housing, food, etc.? How will you pay for it (loans, scholarships, etc.)?

Narrow and Sort Your List

Following the research stage, you should be ready to reduce your list of colleges from about 20 to about 10, all of which satisfy your criteria and which you’d be happy to attend. As you narrow your list, make sure it’s balanced; a list that includes colleges that range from ones you are likely to get into to ones that are more of a reach will maximize your admissions chances.

  • What is a “reach” school? You have some chance of acceptance because your GPA and test scores are similar to about 25% of those typically accepted.
  • What is a “target” school? You have a good chance of acceptance because your GPA and test scores match the average.
  • What is a “likely” school? You have a very high chance of acceptance because your GPA and test scores are higher than average.

Check out our earlier article about creating a college list for more information.

How A+ Can Help

The result of a successful college search isn’t just a list of colleges that satisfy your needs and that you would gladly attend. It’s useful knowledge about yourself and about the colleges that you can use during campus visits, essay writing, and admissions interviews. To make sure that you do succeed, A+ Test Prep and Tutoring offers academic and test prep tutoring, college essay help, and college admissions coaching. With our support, you will be able to determine what colleges are the best fit for you, earn the grades and scores you need to get in, and write essays that impress. Your future awaits, so take your first steps toward applying to college by starting your college search and considering how A+ can help you today.At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, we can be reached at 215-886-9188 or email us at


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