Launch Your Search

Did you know that there are nearly 3,000 four-year colleges in the United States? And yet each one is distinctive. Large and small. Urban and rural. Public and private. Luckily, you don't have to know everything about every school. You just have to know your interests, your educational goals and what is most important to you in a college experience. Here are a few steps to help you start your journey:

  • Assess yourself. Get on your computer or grab a pen and paper and answer these questions: What am I interested in? What am I passionate about? How do I learn best? How do I like to spend my free time? What might I want to do after college?
  • Know your options. At College Search Step-by-Step you can learn about basic college categories and begin to explore your preferences.
  • Identify what is most important to you. For many students, a challenging academic environment is the No. 1 consideration. Others may prefer a campus rich with activities and social opportunities. For yet others, a thriving arts scene might tip the scale. Go back to your self-assessment and look at the answers again. Which way are they pointing you?
  • Start searching. There are many ways to do this. You can search online with resources such as The College Board or Princeton Review. Or you can make an appointment with your high school counselor and share your self-assessment with them. Then there are college fairs, where you can meet the representatives of a variety of schools and pick up materials that will tell you more about the institutions.
  • Make a list. Chances are, your initial list will be a big one. Your first pass might produce a list of 25 or more institutions. If you haven't yet done so, go to each school's website and request more information. Colleges love inquiries and will be quick to send you print brochures and emails about their programs, faculty, students and campus life. Keep the information you find most useful and start thinking about arranging a few college visits. Most colleges have open houses in spring and fall and give tours year-round.

Hit the Road

There is no better way to judge a college than a campus visit. It's a great opportunity to "try on" the place for a day and see how it feels. Is it too big, too small, too crowded? Too rural, too serious, too quirky? Or is it just right? Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your higher education road trips:

  • Visit as many schools as you can. Your college search is a chance to comparison shop, and experiencing multiple colleges is the best way to figure out which one is the best in relation to the others.
  • Multi-task. Going on vacation this summer? Drop in on some schools along the way. Going to visit your dream school in Pennsylvania, Kansas or New York? See if there are other colleges close by that fit your criteria.
  • Keep your options open. You might think an urban college is a poor fit for you. Try one out and see. Or maybe you’ve ruled out certain schools because they're too small. You might find out you like the feel of a small campus environment. Be willing to challenge your own assumptions.
  • Draft a list of questions. College tour guides generally work from a script, so ask questions that will give you the real scoop. Inquire about the strengths and weaknesses of the student experience at that school.
  • Strike out on your own. Walk the campus and strike up a conversation with a random student or professor. The unscripted answers you get will tell you more about the character of the college than any campus tour ever could.
  • Ask questions first, then apply. Start a dialogue with an admission officer to gather information and use what you learn to improve the quality of your application. Many colleges take your expressed interest into account when reviewing your application.

Get Noticed

Admission officers want to get to know you as a person. But they can't do that if they don't hear from you. The most successful applicants don't apply and wait. They reach out and communicate their strengths as applicants. Here are some ways you can distinguish yourself during your search:

  • Visit. There is no better way to show you are a serious applicant.
  • Interview. Many colleges recommend interviews because they want to get to know you. It also lets them put a face and a story to your application.
  • Contact your admission representative. Many colleges assign a specific admission representative to you. Find out who that person is and reach out.
  • Pick up the phone. If you have a question about a college or the application process, give the admission office a call. They are trained to help you find the information you need.
  • Attend a college fair. If one of your top choice schools is at a college fair at your high school, stop by the table to introduce yourself. 
  • Attend a high school visit. If a school you are interested in is visiting your high school visit, go see what they have to say and don't forget to introduce yourself! The person traveling to your school may just be one of the people who will read your application. 

Ace the Interview

What's the big deal about interviews? Well, an interview lets the college get to know "the real you." While your application, essays, and recommendations provide a decent snapshot, they are no substitute for a face-to-face meeting where you can talk about your interests and goals. Plus, by making the effort to interview, you let the college know you are a serious applicant. Here are a few tips for nailing the perfect interview:

  • Arrive a few minutes early in case there are forms to fill out.
  • Dress appropriately and modestly (think business casual).
  • Prepare 2 to 3 questions for your interviewer, as you'll likely have an opportunity to ask them during or after your interview.
  • Be prepared for the basic opener, "So, why don't you tell me a little about yourself?"
  • Do your research on the college in question. You may be asked "why this college?" during the interview.
  • Avoid using conversation fillers ("like," "um," "you know," etc.).
  • Don't try to memorize your responses. Remember that interviews are conversations.
  • Relax. Take a deep breath, smile, and let your personality come through.

Write the Best Possible Essay

Do the words "college essay" strike fear in your heart? Let's banish that fear by breaking down the writing process into manageable steps:

  • Don't procrastinate. Start in the summer if you can. Deadlines approach much faster than you expect, and a hastily written essay is unlikely to be your best work.
  • Think before you write. Brainstorm with friends and family to identify topics that spotlight your positive attributes and demonstrate your ability to succeed in college.
  • Write a rough draft, and then walk away. This helps you clear your mind. When you come back to your essay, you'll see it with fresh eyes and be ready to make focused edits.
  • Speaking of editing. … It may seem laborious, but it's vital. Careful editing and proofreading can turn an average essay into a great essay. Ask yourself:
  1. Do I have an organized introduction, body and conclusion?
  2. Do my words convey the message in a precise and natural way?
  3. Have I chosen words that are specific and accurate?
  4. Have I used proper punctuation?
  5. Have I checked my spelling?
  6. Are my verb tenses consistent?
  7. Does this essay communicate my strengths as an applicant?
  • Finally, relax! The essay is important, but it's just one part of the whole. Your transcript, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and test scores (if applicable) all help paint the final picture.

Get a Great Recommendation

The letter of recommendation is one of the key ways that colleges verify you are a strong student and possess the qualities needed for future academic success. Here are some tips on securing and submitting top-notch recommendations:    

  • Start early. If it's September and you haven't already asked your teachers for letters of recommendation, get moving. Teachers write dozens of letters each year, and requests pile up near application deadlines.
  • Be organized. When a teacher agrees to write a letter for you, provide him or her with a list of the school's requirements and deadlines.
  • Educate your recommenders. Don't assume the letter writer knows everything that's great about you. Give them a résumé or schedule a conversation to discuss your accomplishments.
  • Choose wisely. A good letter of recommendation can make an impact, but a lukewarm letter can hurt your application. Don't choose a teacher who doesn't know you well.
  • Follow up. Letters are an investment of time, so send each teacher a thank you note recognizing the effort he or she has made on your behalf.

Don't Forget Financial Aid

Completing the financial aid application process is a crucial and often overlooked part of a successful college application. If you know you will need financial aid, apply for aid at the same time you apply to individual colleges. It will save you time later and reduce your risk of missing important deadlines. Here are the basics of financial aid:

  • Indicate your interest in financial aid on your college application by clicking YES to the "Do you intend to apply for need-based financial aid?" question  on your application.
  • Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is used to determine a student's eligibility for federal student aid, including federal loans and Pell Grants.
  • Complete the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. Many private colleges commit a large portion of their budgets to financial aid. The CSS PROFILE is a resource these schools use to determine a student's eligibility for institutional aid.
  • Submit your family's tax returns and related tax records through IDOC, a service that allows qualifying students to submit their tax returns electronically. If you have submitted the CSS PROFILE and a college requires your federal tax records, you will automatically receive instructions on how to use the IDOC by email.
Finish Strong

All applications are filed and now you can kick back and wait to find out where you'll spend your next four years, right? To be safe, you had better check your work. Here are a few things you can do at the end of the application process.

  • Watch your deadlines. A late application says a lot about your organization and diligence. So get everything in on time. And be sure to leave enough time before the deadline to remedy a wayward application item. 
  • Verify that your application is 100% complete.  You might think you've remembered everything, but to be sure, call the admission office or check your status online (most colleges will provide applicants with a web portal where they can send and receive information).
  • If you haven't already, visit your top schools and request an in-person interview. If you are unable to visit or interview, contact the admission office and ask good questions. Informed applicants tend to submit higher quality applications.
  • Don't stop building your college knowledge. Keep asking questions so you are prepared for decision time.
  • Keep your grades up. You don't want to be the applicant with poor mid-year grade reports. Colleges tend to focus on how you are performing during senior year. Finish strong academically. Many colleges require you to submit a final grade report.
  • Update your application with any new information. If you have won an award, received a scholarship, or engaged in a meaningful learning experience, let an admission officer know.