How to Research Colleges and Begin to Build Your College List

Thinking about WHERE to apply to college can seem like a pretty daunting idea. Maybe you’re familiar with a few schools, maybe you have a set idea of THE ONE, or maybe you just have no idea and are pretending the whole thing will work itself out…right? Right.

Let’s explore colleges and build your college list in a way that will not only match your interests, academics and needs, but you can walk away feeling confident in your choices.

Before we dive into the resources, it is important that you take time to reflect on what you would even want in a college. Take away universities you may have in your mind and just pretend you can create a university from scratch. By going through and building your dream university, you’ll be able to find what you value. And if you find a college that meets your values, well that’s pretty cool. 

What does your dream school have? Think about components of a campus that are important to you and will allow you to thrive within that environment.

  • Academics: What type of learning suits you best? Small-discussion based, interdisciplinary, etc. What type of academic environment do you want, academically challenging and/or competitive. What type of academic support do you need (math center, tutoring labs, support services for learning disabilities, etc.)
  • Social: Think about the types of activities your future friends and you will be doing on campus (growing your own sustainable farm for local food, going to football games, checking out art museums or local bands) How BIG or SMALL is the campus?
  • Extras: Again, start with dreaming. What type of ethos does your college have? Ethos is the heart, mission and drive of a college campus. So what would your ethos have? Sustainability, community impact, research and higher thinking, challenging academic boundaries, social justice, etc.
  • Environment: What do your actual surroundings look like? Are you in the heart of a big city, do you have access to a city but are a bit more removed. Are you at a smaller campus in the Pacific Northwest nestled in a quieter town?


Resources to get you started: The internet is full of ways to research schools and here are a few of my favorites:

Unigo – Think of this as a “yelp” for college. Just like Yelp, colleges are reviewed on a first-hand experience from the students who have attended or are attending the institution. So while all colleges may seem to sound the same (i.e. clubs, Greek life, access to professors, sports teams, research and study abroad opportunities, etc.) Unigo lets students explore the “vibe” of a campus, the stereotypes, food and dorm ratings, campus facilities, ratings for nearby shops, extracurricular activities, off-campus housing and more. Dive a little deeper and hear from students. As with Yelp I caution students to read multiple reviews to get a bigger picture.

College Express – I found College Express through a fellow colleague’s resource page. I’ll tag him here because he is also a WEALTH of information and I encourage you to check out his website here: College Essay Guy. The reason why College Express is such a wonderful college exploration tool is because of their lists. You may be familiar with U.S. News & World Report’s College Rankings. Rankings can be misleading, cause anxiety and overwhelmingly make it seem like there are only a few “good” schools available. This just is not true. College Express has lists broken up by interest, learning styles, academic and social experience and so much more. Here are a few examples of some of the lists you could explore: Colleges for students needing a second change. 10 colleges that get Greek life right. Colleges for the artist who doesn’t want to go to art school. 10 cool colleges for entrepreneurs.

Google Maps – This one might seem out of place, but I promise it’s a powerful tool. It can be hard to have faith that a college is a good “fit” for you when have never visited the campus. Google maps has the amazing ability to help create a vision of not just the campus, but its surroundings. Put the university in the search engine and zoom out a little. What do you see? Museums? Mountains? Access to a metro station that takes you into town? Where is the closest airport? What is the population of the town around campus? What does the closest town have? Google maps can help paint a bigger picture, use it and explore.

CollegeView – This is a simple search site, but I love it because there are so many categories. Any student can get really specific by putting in more criteria. Search by location, major, Greek life (or schools with no Greek life), GLBT-friendly, college town, school size, school type, access to urban environments and more. The higher percentage a school has, the more criteria it meets.

YouVisit – Not every college is on You Visit but quite a large amount are and it is a wonderful resource. YouVisit allows you the opportunity to take a virtual tour of campus and here from a recorded tour guide. Take a tour of the science facilities, learn more specific facts about a brand new gym and just explore a little more. It can be tough to decide where to take a college tour and you may not get to travel all over, but this is a free accessible resource as your fingertips.

Western Undergraduate Exchange – The Western Undergraduate Exchange is an amazing resource to search for affordable out-of-state options. A lot of my families will automatically take an out-of-state school off the table purely because of cost. The initial “sticker price” of tuition can be shocking, especially out of state. Western Undergraduate Exchange offers a list of colleges in various Western states who offer a reduced tuition rate to qualifying neighboring states. All my California students, that means you. Here’s an example: Source: Take a look at qualifying institutions and any additional requirements needed to qualify.

After you research, see if you can visit a college campus. If you can’t get away to a different state look within a few hours of your home. Odds are you can find a few different campuses to explore (private, public, large, small, religious, institute, etc.) Even if you plan on going out of state, the value of touring a college and looking closer at programs is immeasurable. This is the fun part, so have fun throughout the search process!

2 responses to “How to Research Colleges and Begin to Build Your College List”

  1. […] looking for the academic, social and campus fit overall. Want some more tips? Check out How to Research and Build Your College List. Organize your colleges in an excel spreadsheet, in a notebook or on your phone. Know your early […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: