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How many times have you heard this dreaded question?: “So, what’s your plan for college?”

Researching colleges can be a time-consuming and daunting task. You’ve got websites, forums, brochures, and friends’ and family members’ opinions coming at you from all directions. Believe it or not, you can get through this (without winding up in the fetal position).

Group of students on cell phones. Speech bubbles

Check out this guide to make your college search process as smooth as possible.

Getting started

First, remember that college is about you and your future. If you have no clue what that future holds, that’s OK (and totally normal).

For now, consider your skill set and what you can do with it. Think about what you’d like to try and what you think you’d be good at in the future. Just because you haven’t taken a physics class yet doesn’t mean you can’t be the next Elon Musk.

To further narrow things down, ask yourself, “What gets me excited?” Then consider the big picture, looking at where those passions fit into degree programs offered by colleges.

“If you don’t know what you want to study, pick a college that offers a variety of different majors so you can explore and possibly find a new passion,” says Lynette, a recent high school grad from Boston, Massachusetts. “If you have decided on what to major in, then pick the colleges that offer those majors to [help you] sort through the many options.”

Next, move on to looking at specific schools. These websites have super-helpful search engines:

  • College Board allows you to search using students’ test scores, schools’ credentials, size, tuition, location, admissions requirements, and more.
  • College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics lets you build a list of schools based on students’ search criteria and then exports them into a spreadsheet for side-by-side comparison.

two students in library

Look into programs in the fields you’re interested in

Your college education will help jump-start your professional future, no matter what field you pursue. That’s probably why 90 percent of students who responded to a Student Health 101 survey say the number one thing they look for in a college is that it has programs relating to their interests.

If you have no idea what you want to study yet, keep in mind that most of the time you’ll be able to change your major. Most schools also allow you to apply as “undeclared,” meaning you haven’t decided which major to pursue yet. Learn more about the pros and cons of applying as undeclared.

John LaBarbera, the director of undergraduate recruitment at Queens College, City University of New York, says the general education classes that you’ll take in your first couple of years help students who are undecided “figure out what they want to do as they go along.” Yes, you need to take them to graduate, but they also give you an idea of which majors interest you.

If you excel in a particular subject but are still undecided on a major, look at schools known for their programs in that area. Say, for example, you’re good at science and math. If you apply to schools that specialize in those departments, your background will make you an appealing candidate to the admissions committee. Once you’re in, you’re likely to find a major specific to your passions.

Here are the top 7 things students say they’re looking for in a college

Whether you want to venture out miles away from home or stick close to your roots, here are the benefits of both options:

Living near or at home means:

  • Close proximity to family and hometown friends
  • Saving money on room and board
  • Living in a place you’re familiar and comfortable with
  • Nearby help if you need it

Living in a new town or city means:

  • New experiences in a new place
  • Meeting a diverse crowd of people with backgrounds different from yours
  • Learning to live independently for the first time
  • Potential for different types of job opportunities than what your hometown or city offers

For better or worse, your credentials are a big deciding factor on where you’ll be accepted into college. Although some schools no longer require SAT or ACT scores to apply, most still do. Compare your GPA and SAT or ACT test scores to the average GPAs and test scores of those accepted into the college you’re applying to.

For help, check out these tools:

The cost of college is on two-thirds of students’ minds, according to our survey—and for good reason.

After evaluating your financial situation, you may find that taking out hefty loans isn’t going to be what’s best for you. Fortunately, there are ways you can attend college without breaking the bank.

State schools: Financial aid and student loan options vary from state to state and school to school, but schools in your home state will almost always offer better financial opportunities than out-of-state schools.

“Cost is a genuine worry, I get that, but scholarships exist and should be taken into account,” says Seamus, a junior in Boston, Massachusetts. “Pick a college that you would be happy going to.”

Scholarships, grants, and more non-loan offerings: Check and see if the schools you’re interested in have scholarship opportunities and how competitive they are.

Check out the “Pay for College” page on College Board to learn the ins and outs of financial aid, loans, and scholarships.

Does your dream school have employment opportunities for students? Some programs also offer internships for course credit, on or off campus. This will get you great career experience and offset some of your expenses. You can also look into on-campus jobs and apply for work-study through financial aid.

Yes, academics are important, but you’re going to need a way to wind down after hours of class and a support system to help you through these big life changes. How’s the social life looking?

You can get a feel for what a college’s social scene is like before you even visit:

  • Check out a campus map to look for places where students can publicly convene, inside or outdoors (e.g., cafés, sports venues, quads). Hangout spots are essential to an awesome college atmosphere.
  • Browse through event calendars to see if the school has parties or socials where students can mingle. Bonus points go to events with free food.
  • Scroll through a college’s social media handles to see how students interact and how the school presents itself.

If you’re able to physically visit colleges (we highly recommend it), pay attention to a campus’s atmosphere and culture:

  • LaBarbera recommends simply walking through campus to help you gauge whether or not you like a school’s environment. Imagine yourself as a student to see if you’d fit in.
  • Schedule a guided campus tour. Most admissions offices offer them.
  • Colleges have open houses where you can learn more about their programs and campus life.

Think about the amount of people you want to be surrounded by every day—would you prefer hundreds or thousands? Do you feel energized by crowds or small groups? Take into account how big your high school is and whether or not you want your college experience to be similar.

Also consider class size and student-to-teacher ratio. Do you want to take classes in a giant lecture hall with 100 or so other students? Or would you rather have a more personal experience, with 10 or so classmates? Just remember that your classes will likely get smaller over time as you narrow your focus and take more courses specific to your major.

If you’re an athlete, quality sports programs are probably high on your list of college search criteria. Find out anything you can about the team’s record, coaching style, the dynamic between players, and the benefits that come with the program you’re looking at. This is a good time to look into athletic scholarships too.

“Student athletes who want to play at a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) school should start talking to their coach and school counselor as early as possible to make sure they meet the academic criteria and are cleared by the NCAA Eligibility Center,” says Stacy Ciarleglio, head athletic trainer at the Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut.

Even if you’re not a serious athlete, most schools offer fitness classes and have some kind of recreational or exercise facility. Check out whether any of the schools’ athletic offerings pique your interest.

Get specific

Now think about some of the nitty-gritty details. What kind of experience are you after?

Scour colleges’ websites

Research the degree programs and faculty members. Check out professor bios to see details about their experience, published research, areas of interest, or awards and accolades.

Pro tip: Check out Rate My Professors for reviews written by the students themselves. These can also give insights about the program the professor is teaching in.

Ask around

Talk to alumni, upperclassmen, family, and friends. Firsthand accounts from alumni and current students can give you information about a college’s specifics in a way that no admissions officer can.

Stop by your school counselor’s office

It’s their job to be a resource for you as you undertake the college search process.

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Article sources

John LaBarbera, director of undergraduate recruitment at Queens College, City University of New York in Flushing.

College Board. (n.d.). Pay for college. Retrieved from https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-colleg

College Board. (n.d.). Scholarship search. Retrieved from https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/scholarship-search

College Simply. Colleges by admissions test score. Retrieved from https://www.collegesimply.com/guides/colleges-by-test-score/

College Simply. College search by GPA. Retrieved from https://www.collegesimply.com/guides/colleges-by-gpa/

Community College Review. Find community colleges. Retrieved from https://www.communitycollegereview.com/find-schools

Franklin University, Foundations for Success. (2016). How to research colleges, degree programs and faculty members [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.franklin.edu/blog/how-to-research-colleges-degree-programs-faculty-members

Peterson’s. (n.d.). Scholarship search. Retrieved from https://www.petersons.com/college-search/scholarship-search.aspx

Princeton Review. (n.d.). Four reasons to consider community college [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.princetonreview.com/college-advice/community-college

Student Health 101 survey, July 2016.