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)

How to Start Your College Search

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Starting the college search is sometimes thought of as a milestone moment in your high school career. There might be a lot of talk and anticipation building up to it. It reality though, the college search sometimes doesn’t have an official starting moment. Instead, it’s often a slow, rolling start with small steps building up over a period of months or even years.


However your college search begins, there are a few universal considerations and steps that you’ll go through as you begin to plan your future. In this post, we outline the steps you’ll take at the beginning of your college search and we discuss the next steps you’ll need to take from there.



Consider Your Priorities

At some point near the very beginning of your college search, you’ll need to think hard about your priorities. You’ll want to narrow down the most important factors in your college search. Ultimately, you’ll juggle all sorts of considerations when choosing a college, but deciding which factors are most important will help you to weigh the options more objectively.


For some students, these might include geographical location, strong programs in particular fields of study, size, student population, or even campus resources. You’ll need to think hard about which factors matter the most to you personally. This can sometimes be a source of conflict between students and their parents, and in those cases you might discover that you need to find schools that meet multiple criteria. Alternatively, you and your parents will have to have a hard conversation about your future and how it compares to your parents’.  


To learn more about different factors that may influence your college search, check out our posts about starting a college list:


Seven Tips for Creating Your College List

Five Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Your College List

10 Considerations For Making Your College List



Focus on Your Ambitions

Another important aspect of your college search will be your ambitions for the future. Do you want to become an orthopedic surgeon? Do you want to go into public service? Do you want to pursue the fine arts, be involved in social justice, or become more politically active?


Some of your ambitions might be directly related to a college major or career options. Others might be more personal. Whatever the case may be, you’ll most likely want to choose a college that enables you to work towards your long term goals.


So, how do you find colleges with the resources and programs in place that will guide you towards your goals? There are many resources for doing this, which we’ll discuss below. For more analysis, check out our posts


Choosing a College: How to Get Started

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.


Be Open With Your Support Network

Having conversations about your goals and priorities is an important part of the process. You’ll want to discuss these things with your parents, guidance counselor, coaches, teachers, mentors, and friends. The important people in your life will help you to frame your thinking, offer important perspective, and maybe even provide insightful advice.


In addition, odds are that someone you know will have information about 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.


Finally, networking can be a useful resource to leverage when applying to colleges. You never know when your soccer coach’s sister’s son might be a junior on the soccer team at the college that you hope to play for one day. Sharing your college goals can lead to important connections that lend more insight into the application process.



Do Your Research

There are many resources available for learning more about colleges during the initial phase. Attending college fairs, information sessions, and regular meetings with your guidance counselor will all be useful as you begin to narrow down your college search.


In addition, there are almost infinite online resources. For one, the CollegeBoard 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.


Another useful online resource includes virtual campus tours. One popular site providing this service is eCampus Tours. Here, you’ll find a virtual tour of over 1,300 colleges searchable by state.



What’s the Next Step?

After you’ve compiled your initial college list, you’ll need to begin to narrow it down to the schools that you’ll ultimately apply to. Revisiting the steps above is a great way to get started. Your goal should be to narrow your list to around eight schools. These schools should represent what are referred to as safety, target, and reach schools. To learn more about this, check out our post The College List, Decoded: Safety, Target, and Reach Schools.


To learn more about colleges and to decide if they’re really a good fit for you, you should aim to visit the colleges on your list, if possible. At the very least, try to visit the schools that accept you before you commit to any of them. Campus visits will give you a better sense of the school’s culture, a deeper understanding of the school’s resources, and a clearer vision for how the school fits with your goals and priorities.


You can also learn more about colleges by meeting with admissions representatives who visit your school, getting in touch with current students or recent alums, and even talking about the school with people who’ve visited it or are currently consider it as well. Leverage all the resources available to help you make the best decisions for your unique hopes and needs.


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.


To learn more about starting your college list check out these 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

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.