4 Ways to Jump-Start Your College Search Process

This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.

Spring has sprung … sort of. While many of us are still digging ourselves out of snow and ice, the signs of spring have arrived: more sunlight, rising temps and blossoming flowers. For admissions offices, spring is a time to both work with high school seniors as they commit to the colleges that are the best fits for them and work with juniors as they begin their college search processes. If you’re a junior in high school, this is a great opportunity to start working with your high school counselor or other adviser to get ready to apply to colleges in the fall. Here are a few helpful tips to get a jump-start on your college search process:

1. Start with you.

There are hundreds and hundreds of colleges out there and they will all offer you a different experience. However, finding the college that will be the best fit for you begins with you. What do I mean by the best fit? It’s the college that will provide you with the resources and support needed to achieve your goals while in college and after graduation. For example, maybe you’re you interested in architecture: That’s a great place to start! You can locate colleges that have architecture programs that sound exciting to you. Maybe you don’t know what you want to study, but you know that you want to go to a small college with a few thousand students or a large college with a lot of school spirit. One of the best metaphors I can think of is that of finding the perfect pair of shoes. A pair of shoes may look great, but if they don’t fit, they’re going to hurt. In the same way, a college that looks great (maybe because you know someone who goes there, or due to the promise of a large scholarship) may not be the best fit for you because you won’t find a sense of community or won’t have the opportunities you’re looking for. If you’re starting this process early, you have time to think about what YOU want, which can make this process a lot less overwhelming.

2. Check out the school online.

One of the best ways to get a feel for a college is to look at its website. The stories that a colleges choose to tell about itself can give you an indication of the experience you would have there. Check out the academic programs and look at what sort of information is there. Does the school tell you what kind of internships you can have? Where you might be able to study abroad? How do faculty and students collaborate? You can also check out the student life sections to see how students might spend their time on campus and what events are held. If a school piques your interest and you want to learn more, request information. If you have specific questions or can’t find something, reach out to an admissions counselor. Most schools’ websites list the contact information of the admissions office, and this will most likely be the best place to start in getting the answers to your questions about a particular school. Some schools even have designated counselors for each state so that you can start making connections with someone who may end up reading your application if you apply. I receive at least a few emails a week from high school juniors who have checked out our school and now want more information.

3. Plan to visit.

Some schools offer visit opportunities geared toward high school juniors and their families. A campus visit is important because it will usually give you an opportunity to tour the campus, meet current students and connect with the admissions office. If cost is an issue, look into fly-in programs, which might cover the travel costs. Plan to get your parents and/or other family members involved so that they too can get the answers to their questions about the college. Students can usually “feel” if a college is the right fit for them after visiting, and spending time on campus can help you narrow down your list of potential schools.

4. Plan to finish strong your senior year.

Your senior year grades are important. Additionally, schools have specific requirements that you’ll need meet to qualify for admission, as do some academic programs. Once you’ve identified some schools you’re interested in, check with your counselor or teachers to make sure that your senior schedule is strong and will help you be competitive for the schools you want to apply to.

These are just a few activities to get you started; there are always other things to consider. The summer might be a good time to start looking at scholarship applications. If you don’t feel you are a strong test-taker, try to locate some test prep resources so that you can earn the strongest score possible. And of course, take the SAT or ACT as early as you can so your scores can get to your desired schools in time to meet deadlines. In addition, if you know someone who has gone through the college search process, see if they can give you some advice or tips that they learned through their experience. It’s not necessary or even recommended that you try to go through this process alone.

Here are some great resources to get you started:

Best of luck with your college search process!