Attention Seniors and Juniors: Finding the Perfect College / University: A Brief Guide

posted May 31, 2012, 4:45 AM by Unknown user   [ updated Sep 3, 2012, 2:36 AM ]

Beginning the search for the perfect college can be exciting, frustrating, and a bit overwhelming.  How, when, and where to start??  Luckily there are plenty of printed guides and websites to help with your search, some better than others.  My experience with modern students is that books and other printed guides are likely to collect dust somewhere while students furiously search online for their dream school.  So, parents, talk with your teen before spending a lot of money on printed guides.  There are a few websites that I have found very helpful and I will share these with you below.  Most of these websites seem to focus on the U.S. (and possibly Canada) because there are almost 4000 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone.   I have also included some sites for Canada, the UK, and universities worldwide.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me or make an appointment to discuss all this in person!


To avoid confusion:  I tend to use the term “college” instead of “university” to describe any institution that offers a Bachelor’s Degree even though many institutions are actually a university or part of a university (a university technically combines a liberal arts college, professional schools such as medicine and engineering, and graduate level programs at the Masters or Doctorate level).  So when you see College written here it means any institution offering the first four-year degree.   


Before beginning a serious college search, students should talk with parents, friends, family members, teachers, and anyone else who might provide some suggestions on colleges to explore.  Then do the homework:  use the individual college website and the sites below to research all the colleges you have heard about and find interesting.  Take the time to find the colleges that YOU find interesting.  Do not apply to a college only because your friends applied there!  Be realistic and only apply to schools that you truly would like to attend and that are within your financial means.  Remember, most colleges charge an application fee of $35 - $100 just to apply, so don’t waste time and money. 


The next step is to decide what your perfect college would be like and then do a search that will find the schools that match your personal preferences.  First decide what criteria you will use for your search:  preferred major, geographic location, size, and setting (urban or rural) are common search criteria.  I recommend starting with your preferred major and then fine-tune your search according to the college size, tuition, setting, and location.  If you don’t have a preferred major yet then search by the other criteria until you decide on a major.  The basic idea is to enter your preferred criteria into a college search engine, and have it generate a list of colleges that match your preferences.  Explore each school in the list for specific information and to find a link to the college website.  Most websites allow you to create an account and save a list of the schools that interest you.  OK, that’s the basic idea.  Now to get started! 


Peterson’s College Search

 I have found Peterson’s College Search website to be helpful and user friendly:


The College Search feature on the Peterson site is easy to use and can be quite detailed.  There are well over 3000 colleges in their database including schools in Canada and other countries.  It even listed a school in the Federated States of Micronesia in one of my trial searches! 


To search by Subject or Major:


1.     Click Advanced Search in small blue letters under the larger Search area. 

2.     When the window opens, choose your preferred subject and major.  For example, you might choose Psychology in Step 1, Clinical Psychology in Step 2, and Bachelor’s in Step 3.  You will find that 17 schools match your selections. 

3.     Click Search to see a list of these schools.  Now notice the Filter Search to the left of the list.  Use these filters to further refine your search and eliminate schools that don’t meet your preferences. 

4.     Then click the schools that interest you.  Notice the buttons to the left for different categories of information for each school. 



The Common Application College Search


Another helpful site is The Common Application College Search feature:

The Common Application is a one-time application that can be used for all 456 of its member colleges.  Once a student completes the Common App it can be sent to up to 20 of its members by a simple click of the mouse.  Many of the better schools in the USA use the Common App; I strongly recommend that students applying to even one of these schools use the Common Application for a number of reasons:  it is free, it is no more difficult to complete than other applications, and all required documents are submitted electronically, thus eliminating the possibility of “lost” transcripts and letters of recommendation that never arrive.  Note that the normal college application fees apply when using the Common Application, and some colleges also have their own short Supplement to the Common Application.  All of this is made clear by the application when students use it.  I strongly recommend that students and parents explore the Common App and all of its features and become accustomed to how it works. 


To access the Common Application College Search, click on the Member Colleges & Universities button on the toolbar.  Students can search without creating an account.  This button also provides access to a list of all schools using the Common App.  Using Advanced Search allows students to search using a wide variety of criteria, much like the Peterson’s site above, and then save a list of My Colleges.  Note that the normal college application fees apply when using the Common Application, and some colleges also have their own short Supplement to the Common Application.  All of this is made clear by the application when students use it.  I strongly recommend that students and parents explore this search feature and become accustomed to how it works. 



The College Board College Search:  bigfuture

The College Board (administrator of the SAT college admissions exams) also has an extensive college search/research feature called bigfuture.   This site works much like Peterson’s and The Common App, so it might be useful to try them all and choose the one that seems to best fit your individual needs.  


Here is the link:


College & University Rankings

There are a number of websites that provide college and university “rankings”.  These ranks can be helpful but it is important to check how the rankings were created and the criteria upon which the ranks are based.  Some lists are created using only student opinion; others use a variety of methods and sources of information.  When considering rankings, please keep in mind that any accredited college/university can provide an excellent education.  More important than choosing the highest-ranked college is finding the college that is the best “fit” for an individual.  William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions at Harvard College, says that “the particular college a student attends is far less important than what the student does to develop his or her strengths and talents over the next four years.”  So don’t depend too heavily on Rankings when choosing colleges.


U. S. News & World Report:  Best Colleges

My personal favorite for US schools is the annual U.S. News & World Report’s annual Education issue/website.  This site provides a wide variety of lists and rankings, and it groups colleges in a number of different ways.  To start, follow this link:


There are links to a very large amount of information on this page.  Check the Knowledge Centers and other links.  The actual College rankings and lists are on the left side of the page.  Scroll down to see some of the lists and notice the buttons “More Rankings & Lists” and “A-Z List of All Colleges”.  There is also a College Search feature in the top right corner that allows students to quickly find a particular college’s rank among similar schools.  Using this site helps parents and students finalize their “short list” of schools to which they will actually apply. 



Apply to How Many Colleges?

This is a difficult question.   I think six is a good number.  I recommend the approach in which students place schools into the three categories described below, and then students apply to two schools in each category.  By careful research, this method virtually guarantees the student admission into one or more schools that they would be happy attending.  Although some students apply to 10, or even more, colleges, I personally feel this is a waste of time, energy, and money for the student, parents, and the admissions personnel who have to process all the applications.  Careful research will eliminate the need to apply to so many schools.  But of course parents and students must make the final decision on how many applications to submit. 


I recommend applying to 2 in each category:    


1.     Reach or Dream Schools:  These are just what the name implies – schools that students dream of attending but where admission is extremely competitive and it is difficult to gain admission.  For example, Brown University this year had almost 29,000 applications for only 1500 spots.  So up to 27,500 very worthy students were denied admission simply because of the high number of applicants.


2.     Match Schools:   The schools where a student very closely matches the profile of a successful applicant:  the right GPA, Test Scores, rigorous high school curriculum, Letters of Recommendation, and other criteria.  There is a very good possibility of gaining admission but still no guarantee. 


3.     Safe Schools:  The schools where a student is certain of gaining admission and where he/she will be content for at least the first year or two if not all four years (many students transfer to a different college after 1 or 2 years).  It is very important that students choose the right Safe Schools!  Do NOT make the mistake of applying to a “Safe” School that you know in your heart you would never attend even if it was your last choice.



Canadian Universities

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) is a good place to begin researching Canadian Universities.  Universities are grouped by province and a profile is provided of each university with a link to the school’s website. 




For Ontario only, the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC) is a central website for information and applications for all Ontario universities.  OUAC works much like the Common Application in the US, but is applicable only for the province of Ontario.  In most cases, students must apply to Ontario universities through OUAC.  See BrainTrack and THE below for additional sources of information on Canadian universities. 



World Universities

When researching colleges / universities outside the US, it is a little more difficult to find websites that provide comprehensive information.  There are a few good sites and I am listing two of my favorites here.  One of my favorites is BrainTrack which lists over 13,000 institutions in 194 countries including the US.  BrainTrack groups institutions by country.  Here is the link:


For world university rankings, the Times Higher Education (THE) website provides rankings of the top 400 universities worldwide.  THE uses a comprehensive ranking methodology to produce this list and it seems to be very reliable.  Here is the link:



Application Essays

Many essays require some sort of essay or other student writing sample.  The Common Application gives students the choice of six topics including one that is basically “Choose Your Own Topic”.  These usually stay the same each year so review them now.  THESE ESSAYS ARE IMPORTANT AND SHOULD BE THE STUDENT’S BEST WORK!  For some colleges the essay is the most important part of the application.  It is crucial to take time with these essays and perfect them to the best of one’s ability.  Have a teacher proofread the essays if possible.  There are many websites that offer advice and help in writing essays!  The key is to START NOW and spend time during the summer working on the draft of the essay(s).  As a senior next year students will be very busy with other things, so having a draft done by early September will make life much, much easier.

Good luck!  Please let me know how I can help.