What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

Choosing a College: How to Get Started

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The process of choosing a college can be an intimidating one. After all, for many students your college experience will be the first time you live away from home. The college you attend will become your home and your community for the next four years. It represents a good chunk of your future and will likely have an even further reaching impact on your career and life beyond college. It’s no wonder why choosing a college that is just right for you can seem intimidating or even overwhelming at first.


While many big name schools might already be familiar, there are hundreds of others that you’ve likely never heard of before. Luckily, there are many resources out there for learning more about colleges of all sizes.


In this post, we outline how to get started when it comes to choosing a college. By tapping into your resources you’ll be able to learn about all the options and compile a college list that works for your unique interests and priorities. To learn how to begin choosing a college, read on!


Want to learn more about choosing a college to attend? Check out one of our popular recorded live streams on this topic.


There Is No “Right” Time to Begin Choosing a College

Many students worry about starting their college search too early or too late. While it’s definitely possible to leave it until the last minute and find yourself with limited options, it’s nearly impossible to begin looking at colleges too early, so long as you’re committed to keeping an open mind right up until you commit to a school.


Some students have dream schools they’ve wanted to attend from the time they were very young. Others begin to get interested in looking at various college options early in their high school careers. Still others don’t get serious until junior year. All of these approaches are great to help you compile a college list.


We recommend starting to think about college choices sometime around sophomore year, but you will still have plenty of options as long as you have put some thought into it by the beginning of senior year. Even if you leave your college search until the start of your senior year, it’s possible that you’ll still be able to compile a great college list; you just won’t have quite so much time to do so.


To learn more about starting the college search at various times, see our posts:


Is It Too Early To Be Making My College List?

Is Freshman Year Too Early to Start College Planning?

3 Reasons You Should Start Drafting Your School List Now

Getting Ready to Apply to College: Sophomore Year

Getting Ready to Apply to College: Junior Year

Discover your chances at hundreds of schools

Our free chancing engine takes into account your history, background, test scores, and extracurricular activities to show you your real chances of admission—and how to improve them.

Start By Making a College List

A college list is a polished list of the schools that you’ll ultimately apply to. Depending on when you begin your list, it is likely to vary in length at times. Sometimes, students start out with a lengthy list that needs to be whittled down. Other times, students have only a few schools on their list and need to add more before they apply.


To get started creating a college list, you’ll need to think critically about your priorities and any other important factors in choosing a college. Do you need to attend school close to home? Are finances a limiting factor? Are there any other non-negotiables that you’ll need to take into account?


Also consider your preferences. Do you want to attend a big university or a small private college? What demographics are you looking for? Is geographical location important to you? All of these factors might ultimately play a role in your decision.


To learn more about what a college list is and what it entails, check out these CollegeVine posts:


The College List, Decoded: Safety, Target, and Reach Schools

Seven Tips for Creating Your College List

Five Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Your College List

10 Considerations For Making Your College List


Sometimes, the hardest part of creating a college list initially is discovering the schools that you consider for it. You might hear about the Ivy Leagues and schools with big name sports teams, and maybe you have an older sibling or know of high school alums who have attended other, lesser known schools, but how do you learn about the hundreds of other colleges out there?


How can you be sure that you include the colleges you’re most likely to love on your college list? Here are some tips to get started.


5 Ways to Learn More About Colleges in the Early Phases:  

  1. The CollegeBoard (yes, the same CollegeBoard as the one that manages the SAT and AP exams) maintains an extremely comprehensive college planning site called BigFuture. It contains search features that allow you to filter by SAT score, GPA, geographic location, and school size among many other choices. This is a great place to get started if you just want to figure out what options are out there.
  2. Another great way to learn about new schools is to network with the people around you. You should be talking about colleges and college plans with any and everyone. Strike up a conversation with friends, with friends’ parents, with your own parents, with mentors, teachers, and coaches, and anyone else you can think of. Odds are that someone will know schools similar to the ones you’re already considering. Keep a running list going on your phone so that when someone mentions a school you’d like to investigate further, you can go ahead and add it to a list before you forget its name.
  3. You can also network virtually and gather information from Internet queries, social media, and crowdsourcing sites like Facebook and Reddit. There are plenty of groups or threads to follow if you’re interested in learning more about colleges. Leverage the Internet to your advantage by googling phrases such as “top schools for students who love animals” or “small liberal arts colleges in Minnesota”—you’ll probably be surprised how many people have had the same question as you.  
  4. Your guidance counselor or college adviser can also point you in the right direction. In fact, some schools have a dedicated College or Career Center dedicated to this role. Find out who fills this role at your school and arrange a meeting with him or her to discuss your priorities and brainstorm a list together. Alternatively, if you do not have a college adviser or your guidance counselor isn’t as helpful as you’d hoped, you can also consider a private college adviser, like the services provided by CollegeVine’s personalized admissions specialists. These skilled professionals can point you to a wealth of information that you didn’t know existed and help to identify and fine-tune the schools that are the best match for you.
  5. Finally, once you’ve gathered the names of potential schools, do some research on their actual websites to get a better idea of whether or not they’re a great fit for you. These sites can usually provide a lot of insight into the student body, school resources, campus life, and many other details. If the school still seems like a good fit, you can do a quick Internet search to read third party opinions too.


Want access to expert college guidance — for free? When you create your free CollegeVine account, you will find out your real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve your profile, and get your questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.