College Search Dos and Don'ts


Avoid the frustrations of searching for a college with these simple tips.

The process of deciding which college is right for you can feel overwhelming at times. There are more than 3,200 institutions of higher education in the United States, and sometimes it feels like you have mail from all of them! Finding the one that will fit your particular needs will be a lot easier if you follow a few simple steps. Likewise, a wise college decision includes avoiding some mistakes.

Here are some things I tell my students in my role as a high school guidance counselor. They are some things you'll want to keep in mind, too, as you go about selecting a college.


As you begin your search for that just-right school:

Do collect information. No doubt you are already getting information in the mail from many colleges. Some you know about. Some you've never heard of. Whether you're interested or not, don't throw the material away. Place it in a file marked with the school's name. But don't just sit back and wait for information to come to you. Be proactive. Visit college representatives when they come to your high school or to local college fairs. Be prepared to ask questions about academic programs, facilities, co-curricular programs and finances (including costs and financial aid.) Take notes and collect brochures, applications and catalogs.

Do communicate with others. Remember this general rule: The college decision should be a joint decision. Talk about your college decision with your parents, friends, church leaders and school personnel like teachers and guidance counselors. They can share their college experiences or expert tips with you. Their advice may prove valuable.

As I've advised students on college issues, I sometimes have students whose parents aren't very involved in their college decisions. If this is true for you, look for other adults who can advise you. On the other end of the spectrum, I have some students whose parents do all the work when it comes to their son or daughter's college choice. My advice is to find the middle ground. It is, after all, your education and should be your decision. Seek the wisdom and counsel of others, including your parents, but take ownership of the final choice. Above all, be involved in the process. It can be a valuable learning experience for you.

Do visit campuses. When you reach the point where you've narrowed your list to several choices, plan a visit. Do more than just take a walking tour of the facility. Talk to students, visit classes, talk to professors as well as the student services professionals (admissions and financial aid). Eat in the dining hall and spend time in the student union. Listen to students talk. All of this will help give you a feel for the school.


Here are five pitfalls you should avoid:

Don't let cost scare you. There is no denying it: How you'll pay for college is a major concern. However, the cost of college tuition can be offset by scholarships, financial aid in the form of loans and grants, as well as work-study programs offered on many campuses. The rule to follow is: Don't eliminate a college from your list just because you think it will cost too much. Investigate financial aid opportunities before you decide a school is too expensive.

Don't let your high school grades discourage you. Grades and test scores are important to the college admissions process. But remember that colleges are also looking for students with good work habits who are actively involved in extracurricular programs and have leadership skills and potential. Don't rule out a college just because you don't think you're smart enough to go there. If you think you'll need extra help now and then, check with the college about learning centers and special assistance programs that may help you successfully handle the college's academic challenges.

Don't be overconfident about your chances of being admitted. Particularly in cases where you are applying to school whose admissions standards are competitive, you need to have a backup plan. Applying to more than five colleges is often a waste of your time and money, but filing four or five applications can be a good way to cover your bases in the event one application is denied.

Don't wait until the last minute to apply. While there are cases where students are admitted on a "last-minute" application, you are better off making application deadlines. Even if last-minute applicants are admitted, they often miss out on the best financial aid opportunities, course selection choices and housing options.

Don't be afraid to go to a school away from home. No matter how much you love your family or how close you are to your friends, college is a time to gain additional independence and learn new responsibility. Force yourself to take the opportunity.

Finding your way in a new community and having to make new friendships can be one of the most important life skills you acquire at college. As with any decision, the easiest way is not always the best. Don't let convenience determine your choice. Instead, expand your horizons and stretch your thinking. Challenge yourself to new levels. You will gain new confidence as you do.

Your Chance to Grow

The college decision process is important, but it doesn't have to be too difficult. Remembering a few simple do's and don'ts can make for smoother sailing. Look at the decision-making process as an important part of your education—a time when you can begin to learn what adult responsibility is all about.


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