The College Search: Compiling a List

Paring down college choices into a final list can be a big job.

May 12, 2010 7:36:14 AM PDT
It's a good idea to get working on a list of prospective schools by about halfway through your son or daughter's junior year of high school, although there's nothing wrong with starting sooner. This may sound counter-intuitive. After all, how many high school juniors necessarily know enough about their future plans to begin picking colleges, right? In fact, many don't. But there are some basic questions you and your child can ponder to get the ball rolling.

First, which subjects are the strongest and most enjoyable for your student? Next, what are their favorite activities? What are their passions? For my son (who had no clear idea of a vocation when we started the search), his favorite and strongest class was physics. And once we started talking about it, we learned that one of his interests was flight. In fact, he had been thinking about learning to fly a small airplane at some point later in life. A chat with his high school guidance counselor coupled with an online search of possible majors for physics students turned up Mechanical Engineering and Aerospace. My daughter was more of a liberal arts student than math and science, but she had shown a lifelong passion for anything having to do with animals. Her biggest interest involved working in a zoo. It wasn't long before we had come up with Animal Science as a major.

Imagine yourself...

Next, ask your child several questions about the type of school that sounds the most attractive. How far away from home are they comfortable living? What areas of the country sound alluring? What sort of campus sounds right: rural, suburban, or city? How big of a school sounds best: large football campus, medium-sized, or small college? What sorts of on-campus activities sound interesting? Are intramural sports important? Clubs? Fraternities? Sororities?

Based on the responses, you should very quickly have a decent idea of where to begin your search, and thanks to the internet, compiling a list of schools that fit the bill is fairly easy. There are several websites that make this possible. Here's a link to one of the most common,, which we found thorough and easy to use:

You can search by prospective major(s) and then narrow the search by geographic area, as well as other parameters. Prospective schools can be compared by average standardized test scores, cost, student body size, and scholarship opportunities. You can then save your favorites into a list, which can be amended later. You can even keep more than one list on the site.

Keep the door open

One more thing: while your student's early ideas of what type of campus they think they'd like the best are important, I wouldn't limit your search to only that type of college. For example, if your student has his or her heart set on a small, rural college, go ahead and throw a couple of larger schools on the list, too, and if you can, check them out in person. My son initially said he thought a small, country school would be great, but when we visited Penn State, his reaction was, "You know what, I could probably handle something even bigger than this." (To which I replied, "There isn't anything bigger!") He wound-up at George Washington University, which is about four blocks from the White House in D.C., and absolutely loves the vibrant cityscape there. Had we ignored all but his early idea of an ideal setting, he would have missed out on this opportunity, and the search as a whole, would have been far less productive.

MORE COLLEGE SEARCH ARTICLES: Submitting Applications, When Will I Hear If I'm In?, Wait List, When Must I Decide?, What If I Have Trouble Deciding?, Merit Aid, Need-Based Aid, Federal Need-Based Aid, Can I Ask For More Aid?, 529 Savings Accounts, Myths About The Cost, What Is Upromise?, The Best Way To Pay, College Troubles, College Depression, NCAA Athletics, Athletic Scholarships, The College Search Preface

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