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College Research 101

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

As our senior scholars are dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s on scholarship applications this month, our underclassmen are busy setting their eyes, and hopefully their feet, on various college campuses! As campus facilities and tours are becoming more accessible to visitors, our class of 2023, 24 and even 25 scholars are planning some in-person visits this fall and winter, and settling into research mode to discover which college will be just the right fit.

If you are new to the process, starting and organizing this research can seem like a Sisyphean task! I am here to reassure you that with a bit of guidance, it is possible to create an effective strategy for narrowing down the thousands of college choices available. You and your family may even end up enjoying the process (and the road trips)!

So, where to begin?

There are three broad criteria to consider when looking for schools to add to your long list. Understand that the colleges that are the most popular (think: the eye-level shelf in the grocery store) are not necessarily the ones that are right for you.

Consider the necessary elements to define COLLEGE FIT: Academic Fit - Social Fit - Financial Fit

Let’s consider the ACADEMIC FIT questions first!

Academic Major: Does the school have the major the student is interested in or if they are undecided, several that would provide interesting study options?

To learn this, simply go to the college website or Google search (name of school +XXX Major). To dig deeper, look at the course catalog for that College and Major and see what classes are available. Do they sound interesting to you? Are there many to choose from? Are there options for minors within that College? Are you able to study abroad?

Student Profile: What is the average GPA/Test Score of admitted freshman from last year’s class, and how do your stats compare?

This one is EXTREMELY important in determining whether a school will be a REACH, SAFETY or TARGET school.

Pro Tip: To learn these statistics for any University, simply Google (Name of School + Common Data Set) and find fields C7 and C9. Though these documents are huge, these two fields will provide vital information about a college’s last Freshman class. C7 will let you know what criteria a school will use to evaluate a student’s application, and C9 will tell you average test scores, GPA information and where most students fell in terms of class rank.

Faculty Profiles: Research some of the professors that may eventually become your teachers! Are lower level classes taught mostly by TA’s? Do faculty members have a depth and breadth of knowledge? What research are they known for and is it interesting to you?

Students should also note the average class size. Is it significantly smaller or larger than their high school and will they thrive in that learning environment? What is the student/faculty ratio?

Academic Support Services: If applicable, what support is available for students with learning differences? How are accommodations secured and are there additional resources to help with tutoring, time management or study skills?

Now we can take a look at the SOCIAL FIT!

The four years a student is in college is a time of exponential growth and change! We all know that experiences outside the classroom are just as vital to a student’s growth as classroom learning is. To begin wrapping your arms around this, consider these domains:

School Location: How far away from home is this University? Will it require airfare to get home? Does the student see themselves coming home frequently during the semester?

I am always a fan of new experiences and getting away from one’s hometown, but each student and family will have different ideas, so it’s good to discuss this ahead of time. Unless the cost of airfare is a major financial issue, allow students to express opinions too, despite how much mom and dad may miss them :)

School Size: Does this University have under 5,000 students (small), under 20,000 students (medium), or even more (large). Does the student want to be known by every professor and see friends each day on the way to class (usually a feature of a smaller school), or have hundreds of clubs and student organizations to choose from (more characteristic of a larger school). This is often a fish-in-the-pond scenario, and the student needs to think about what size pond is the most comfortable!

Student Life: This is a very broad category, but can include finding the answers to these questions:

  • Where do students live on campus? Dorms? Landlord houses? Suites? Singles?

  • Where do students eat on campus? What options are available and are they appealing to you?

  • What clubs or organizations seem interesting?

  • Are there any campus traditions or events that excite you?

  • Do students need cars to navigate the campus?

  • Are there health and wellness facilities available?

  • Is there a religious affiliation or a community of faith you identify with?

  • Is there a strong Greek presence on campus and does this interest you?

Diversity: Do you want to experience college with students who are more like you, or who are different from you?

Are there many international students, or do most students who attend this University come from your home state? Are there a variety of political views represented? Is the school racially and culturally diverse? Is there an atmosphere of inclusion for all cultures, identities, sexual orientations and political views?

As college is a place to learn academically AND socially, these factors need to be considered as a vital element of social fit. Remember, we learn by experiencing new things! Understand that some of the answers to these questions can be answered by a quick Google search, but many are best answered by meeting students, faculty members and academic advisors in person on a college visit.

Never, ever overlook FINANCIAL FIT!

This is probably the least sexy point of the triangle, but it is vital to the college research process and needs to be discussed even before in-person visits are scheduled. Nobody wants to fall absolutely in love with a school only to discover it is out of financial reach.

Families need to have serious conversations about student debt tolerance, the overall value of the school, and the projected income of the student’s intended career. Debt-to-income ratios are a real thing for new grads, so keeping a practical eye on college costs, financial aid options, and debt tolerance are key conversations to have early in the process.

The Basics: EVERY family should do an EFC, or Estimated Family Contribution estimator when beginning the college search. This will help to determine the “family” scholarship and let you know what the government estimates your family can afford to pay for college. Whether YOU think this is reasonable is another matter, but this is what you can expect to pay without scholarships, grants, etc. Remember that these are estimations.

The Research: There are many websites that provide information on cost of attendance, but I have found this one,, to be very helpful as it highlights not only the cost of attendance, but also breaks down the number of students who receive merit and need based aid. In the ‘Financials’ tab, the average award amounts and percentage of students receiving awards are also listed. No exact answers here, but it is good to get an idea of how generous or need-aware a school may be when considering financial fit.

Both of these resources are helpful in determining a ballpark of what you may expect to pay for a school. Keep in mind that if you are a top student and choose to attend a slightly less selective school than you might be able to get into, the MERIT aid is often significantly more. Another blog on this later :)

Now that we have taken a look at the elements of FIT, what questions to consider and how to begin to research these, I encourage you to ORGANIZE this research using Google drive folders or any other, easy-to-use format.

Our scholars utilize our College Connect Form, College Reasonings and College Application Tracker to organize all of their research, but whatever system works for the student is great! (I prefer cloud based notes as they are much more difficult to misplace!)

If you feel good about the initial research you have done and think the school looks good online and on paper, PLAN A VISIT to campus and see what each school feels like.

If possible, sign up for an INFORMATION SESSION, schedule a student-lead CAMPUS TOUR, and meet current students! Eat in the dining hall, attend a game or performance, and see if the place feels like home.

Don’t forget to take pictures and keep thorough notes throughout and just after your visit, and add them to your archived notes!

Some exploration and research now will be extremely helpful when it comes to deciding which schools make the cut to your BALANCED COLLEGE LIST.

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