Spring of junior year is when students begin researching colleges. At least, they should, so they have their college list finalized before the end of the academic year and can work on essays during the summer.
Researching colleges systematically and carefully is critical to building a list that genuinely fits the student. Too many students make their list in a scattershot way, adding colleges to the list because a friend or a parent suggested it, not because each college allows them a specific way to accomplish their goals.
Here are LifeLaunchr’s steps to doing college research right.
- Set a budget: The first step is for parents (or whoever will pay for college) to set a budget for the student’s college education. We often say to students that there’s no point wandering into a Tesla showroom if you can only afford a Hyundai. Not setting a budget means that students might apply to a college, get in, and discover they cannot afford it. That is unfortunate and causes unnecessary stress. So set a clear upper limit to the size of check the family can write each year.
- Assess your family’s Expected Family Contribution: The Expected Family Contribution is the amount of money the government thinks your family can afford. The maximum need-based aid you can get from a college is the difference between their cost of attendance and your EFC.
Understand Your Priorities
Some students prefer a large campus where they can explore many clubs, majors, and diverse groups of students. Some value a small campus with a tight-knit community. Finding a suitable community and academic environment is critical. At LifeLaunchr, we use a tool called Corsava to help students understand their priorities. Corsava asks students to do a card sort, where they sort a deck of cards into four piles. Each card represents a quality a college may have: an academic major or cultural attribute, for instance. Students sort these cards into piles representing “must-have,” “nice-to-have,” “don’t care,” and “no-way” qualities, respectively.
Using a tool like Corsava and then discussing the results with a coach, counselor, or parent can help refine your goals. Then you can use LifeLaunchr’s College Match to find an initial list of colleges for you to research. If you’re working with a coach at LifeLaunchr, they will create this initial list for you.
Schedule Information Sessions or Visits
Nearly all selective colleges now offer virtual information sessions and virtual tours of their campuses. Visiting in person is still a unique experience, so do it if you can, but if you can’t, then virtual information sessions are critical. You can find information sessions or schedule visits from the admissions page of most university websites.
When you attend these sessions, remember to ask questions. Your questions should focus on how the college meets the requirements you laid out in your card sort. On the LifeLaunchr blog, you can see several examples.
To learn more about the various majors colleges offer, you can use their websites. Go to the pages for the relevant departments, look into the work done by professors, and look into alternative majors.
Some other useful websites:
- LifeLaunchr’s College Profiles (you can access these through College Match or our College Research page). These provide valuable information about average GPAs and standardized test scores of admitted students, class size, costs, majors, and deadlines.
- The Department of Education’s College Scorecard helps you understand a college’s graduation rates, costs, and earnings by major and college.
- Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce’s Rankings on University Return on Investment help you understand a college’s financial performance.
Many students use community-sourced sites like Reddit and College Confidential. These sites can be helpful, but remember that their information is not fact-checked or put into the proper context.
Use Colleges’ Net Price Calculator
All colleges in the United States offer a Net Price Calculator, which can help you understand how much a particular college might cost you. They don’t always include merit aid, so you have to research scholarships separately, but they will provide a handy baseline that you can use later if the college’s financial aid offer doesn’t match what the NPC indicates.
Research College-Specific Scholarships
Some colleges require specific applications for scholarships. For example, the Ingram scholarship at Vanderbilt or the Robertson Scholarship at the University of North Carolina and Duke. Others have particular deadlines for students to receive merit aid. For example, the University of Southern California has an earlier deadline for those seeking merit aid. Look into these scholarships when you research a college so that you don’t miss the opportunity to get help paying for college.
Many colleges have multiple deadlines. Some have priority deadlines, early action, or early decision deadlines that improve your odds of admission. Look into these deadlines and decide which one is right for you. Your coach or counselor can help you make the right choice for your goals.
Of course, asking questions isn’t enough. Take notes. On LifeLaunchr’s College Research page, you can take notes on your research. These notes will be critical as you build a list, as, over time, you will forget the insights you gain from visits, lose track of scholarships, and miss deadlines.
The LifeLaunchr College Research tool lets you track all of these for each college. You can keep notes on:
- Academic programs you find interesting
- Aspects of the culture you’re intrigued by
- Scholarships you’d like to apply to
- Your likely costs based on the NPC
- Your planned deadline for application
- Other notes
Researching colleges systematically takes time. We suggest focusing on 2-3 colleges a week and doing it over several weeks. Your goal eventually is to research 20-25 colleges to arrive at a college list that has 10-12 colleges on it: 3-4 each of Reaches, Targets, and Likelies in terms of admissions likelihood, but all good fits for you.