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How to Research a College Effectively

High school student researching colleges to build their balanced college list

One of the most important aspects of the college admissions process is identifying the schools that are good academic and social fits for you. To ensure that you are applying to a balanced list of reach, target, and likely schools where you will be happy and successful, extensively research each school before adding it to your list. In addition to helping you narrow down your choices now, down the road this research will also enable you to personalize your applications and communicate to an admissions committee why you want to attend that school. To aid you in your college search, the expert counselors at IvyWise have compiled the following tips on how to research a college effectively.

Focus on Academics First

Ultimately, the reason you are going to college is to get a good education, so first focus on what you will learn in the classroom. If you know what you want to study, make sure to visit that department’s web page and read about the courses offered and the professors who teach those classes. Look for answers to the following questions:

  • What are the required courses for your intended major?
  • Do the available classes sound interesting to you?
  • Can you design your own major?
  • How big is the department?
  • What research or internship opportunities are students able to participate in?

Whether you have decided on a major or are still exploring options, there is lots of research to be done! Many students change majors at least once during college, so it’s important to get a sense of the overall academic environment and curriculum requirements at each school. Consider the following:

  • Are there general education or core requirements?
  • How are courses structured?
  • Do courses emphasize hands-on experiences, lectures, or teamwork?
  • What is the average class size and student-to-faculty ratio?

Consider the Social Factors

College is an academic but also a social experience. Next, create a list of questions about dining and housing, clubs and activities, social life and the surrounding community.

  • Is a meal plan required? Where do students eat on and off campus?
  • Which clubs would you join on campus and what type of events do they host?
  • How do students give back to the college’s local community?
  • Is there Greek life on campus? What percentage of students participate in fraternities and sororities?
  • How is housing assigned? How many roommates might I have my first year?

Use Numbers, but Don’t Dwell on Them

There’s no shortage of statistics about colleges. Admissions rates can help you determine whether a school is a reach, target, or likely, but these numbers are often irrelevant in determining whether a college is a good fit for YOU. Here are some facts and figures that you might want to focus on instead:

  • Retention RatesHow many students return for their sophomore year? How many graduate in 4 years?
  • Diversity: What other nationalities and cultures are represented on campus? What percentage of the student body is international? What is the male to female ratio on campus? What initiatives has the school put in place to support such diversity?
  • Housing: How many students live on-campus versus those who live off-campus? Are students required to live on-campus for a specific number of years or are they allowed to move off-campus at any point? Is on-campus housing provided for all four years of study? Are special housing accommodations available (i.e. quiet, single-sex, learning communities etc.)?
  • Career development: What career services are available? How many students have internships during their time in college? How many students find a job within six months of graduation? How many students go onto business, law, medical, or graduate school?
  • School size and location: Will a smaller or larger school better suit your needs? Would you prefer to be in a bustling city, a small town, or somewhere in between? (Also consider the typical weather, transportation, both public and on-campus, and the distance to major cities or to/from home).

Also, take a look at the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which reports on how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending a particular college.

Use Multiple Sources

There is an abundance of college information out there, from school websites, brochures, and college newspapers, to current students and alumni, to college rankings, and independent college guides and books (for a list of some of our favorite resources, visit the IvyWise KnowledgeBase). While researching, keep in mind that all sources or materials could be flawed in some way. You should not trust any single reference to guide you in your research. Instead, familiarize yourself with as many sources as possible to gain an objective and broad understanding of the data and choices facing you. Of course, one of the best ways to research a school is to experience it firsthand through a campus visit. Check out our article on tips for a successful college visit.

Put Your Hard Work to Use!

The research you conduct will be essential when creating your college list, preparing for interviews, visiting campus, and writing essays. As you do your research, purge any schools from your list that do not meet your needs. Ideally, you will end up with a list of 12-15 best-fit colleges, each of which you would be happy to attend. There are many resources available to aid you in your research efforts. At IvyWise, we work directly with students to fully understand their goals and interests and can use this information to create detailed research reports for each school on a student’s college list. Conducting thorough research will be crucial to your success during the exciting process of finding your home for the next four years. Put these tips to use and find the schools where you will learn, grow, and thrive.

At IvyWise, our team of expert counselors works with students to find the colleges and universities that are the best fit for them — whether it’s a hyper-competitive research university or a small, liberal arts college. Your IvyWise counselor will work with you to find the best college list for your interest and goals, and ensure that you’re presenting your best self in your applications. Contact us today for more information on our college counseling services.

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