With the option to explore thousands of different colleges across the United States, it may seem pretty overwhelming to find the one that suits you best. Years ago, each and every student had to schedule an appointment with guidance counselors to discuss college plans. The process was long and tedious, and it involved much paperwork, as well as many hours of back-and-forth conversations with students, parents, college advisors, and guidance counselors. It was worth it, though, as the chosen college was where the student would spend the next four or more years of their lives.
Now, with the advancement of the Internet, as well as other resources, students can perform their own research, gather facts about colleges and careers, and use others’ opinions to make their decisions. They can become their own guidance counselors!
What are you looking for?
The first step in starting the search process is identifying your own interests. What is important to you in a college? What, exactly, are you looking for? Does a certain college offer the major you plan on pursuing?
If you plan to study in a specialized area, look into schools that offer courses in that field. If you are unsure of a major, a liberal arts college might be your best choice, in that you can take a range of courses tofigure out what you’d like to study. Another thing to consider is whether or not some schools will be ruled out based on your ACT or SAT scores.
You should also consider the size of the school. Are you looking for a college with a student body of 20,000 or more, or a smaller head count?
Some students prefer big state schools; others prefer smaller schools.
With smaller schools, class sizes are likely to be smaller, and there is a better chance of individualized attention. Location is also key—you should take into account the distance from your house to the school (especially if you plan on commuting), how far away family members are (it’s always comforting to know you have a relative close by), and whether the school is in a city or suburb. The location of the school also affects the entire environment at the school, from the social life to the residential life to the career opportunities. Each school also offers different activities, including sports, clubs, and religious groups. If you are a college sports fan, maybe having a good football team will affect your decision. By organizing your preferences, you can start to narrow down your search.
Another major factor to consider before choosing a school is cost.
In-school states are less expensive than out-of-state schools. Private schools cost more money than public schools. You might have even received a scholarship to factor into your finances. In addition, even after narrowing down your search to a few schools, you might want to research statistics showing how much financial aid is typically awarded per student. This number can substantially bring down the cost of tuition and may influence your decision.
Once you have identified your preferences for a school, you can begin the search process. Organization is very important when researching. Keep each school’s information separate so you can easily compare and contrast later on.Where you should look for information
The biggest tool these days for students to research their future plans is the Internet. It is quite beneficial for students to take matters into their own hands and start investigating future colleges on their own. Then, they can take the knowledge they have gathered and consult with a professional guidance counselor for additional assistance.
Almost all colleges and universities have their own web pages with links to athletics, academics, student life, deans, libraries, and more. “You can look at whatever college you want to check out online. You don’t have to visit, but you really can’t know until you see it,” says John Lucas, a high school senior from New Jersey. Morgan Rose, a high school sophomore from New Jersey, finds that it is beneficial to use the Internet to research colleges because a lot of people have been in the same position and can provide great amounts of information.
One drawback to Internet research is that there is no personal connection to the resource. You can read reviews or stop by messageboards to read about professors, clubs, and dormitories, but you never know someone’s motivation for posting information like that. “The Internet is a very powerful tool, because there is an unlimited amount of resources to use. However, it is not really ‘policed’, so you might see some non-factual information and wouldn’t really know it,” says Jason Sherman, a high school senior from New York.
On the other hand, popular websites like CollegeBoard.com and Naviance.com are excellent tools for students to use to research colleges of interest. Naviance.com acts like an interactive guidance counselor, enabling students and parents to read surveys from other parents and students, view scholarship information, look up college visits, read about the application process, and conduct careers in one site. The program also enables counselors to work with students in a more streamlined way.
To participate in the Naviance program, students register for an account and have access to tons of tools to help them plan their futures. According to Naviance.com and the WorkspaceK12 program, students and counselors can work together and view and organize information on courses, colleges, and career planning; build four- or more year course plans to keep them on track; find scholarships based on students’ goals as well as data from previous years’ acceptance rates; access reports and graphs to meet school, district, and state requirements; and send school forms, recommendations, transcripts, and profiles electronically to over 300 colleges to save time, paper, and postage, among other things.
The benefits of the Naviance program are immense. Students can plan for their futures and have comparable data from previous years.
However, there are some drawbacks to this program. Some smaller schools do not post as much data as larger schools. Therefore, some schools may not show up in search results. Also, several students have complained that the program does not record all of their acceptances; it only records the school that the student has chosen to attend.
“I research colleges maybe once a week, using the Internet, especially the Naviance program,” says Jared Cooper, a high school sophomore from New Jersey.
On CollegeBoard.com, students can take a survey and indicate the size of the school they want, the location, their chosen major, etc., and a list of relevant universities is generated. They can organize applications, research scholarship and financial aid information, and make a calendar of deadlines and due dates. The site also has information for parents and professionals.
Other Web sites, like CollegeConfidential.com, enable students to research schools, read message boards, ask questions of other users, and communicate with college deans. There are frequently asked questions, a cost calculator, and tons of articles on topics like SAT scores, Ivy League admissions, race and gender issues on campus, and sports recruitment.
FastWeb.com is a site devoted to scholarships and financial aid. It also suggests colleges a student might be interested in based on
questions the student answers when they register. In addition, the site provides students with advice on how to write an award-winning scholarship essay, how to find scholarships that match students’ qualifications, and even personality tests to guide students toward careers that suit their interests.
These Web sites are comprehensive and informative, but they are no substitute for in-person visits. Students can read pages and pages of reviews and testimonials, but seeing the college and experiencing the environment first-hand is key to picking the right college.
Research: It’s not just for college anymore
Of course, college is not an option for every student. Some students may want to pursue a career right out of high school, either by attending a vocational school, entering into an apprenticeship program, or joining the work force.
“One trend that I have noticed is that a lot of students are interested in trade schools and are looking for careers in automotive repairs,
plumbing, electrical work, and other physical industries,” says Stacy Kaplan, a guidance counselor in New York. For these students, union apprenticeships may be a good option.
Another reason students may choose not to go to college after graduating high school is financial concerns. Some people just may not
have the money to attend college and don’t qualify for financial aid or scholarships. Therefore, options for these people may include getting a full-time or part-time job. Some students may choose to go into the work force permanently or to delay college until the time is right. For the straight-to-the-real-worlders, the Internet offers many, many job research sources like Jobs.com, Careerbuilder.com, and Monster.com, which are great for finding jobs currently available. Other sites (like the U.S. government’s student-geared career information site [www.bls.gov/k12] or wetfeet.com) are great for getting more information about certain industries.
Other places for information
In addition to using the Internet, there are many other sources a student can turn to when researching potential schools or future plans.
Libraries are excellent sources of information. There, you’ll be able to find tons of books dedicated specifically to colleges and universities, and students can research the states and cities nearby. Colleges sometimes provide local libraries, as well as high school libraries, with literature about their schools. You can also obtain books about different career options.
Networking among your social circle can also be a huge help for students searching for their dream school. Many students have older friends that attend their prospective colleges, so setting up weekend visits with them can be extremely beneficial. By doing this, students can see, firsthand, the dynamics of the school—the social life, the residential life, the amount of work given, the extracurricular activities, the sporting events, the culture of the student body, the surrounding area, and much more.
“I think word of mouth is a pretty good resource. There’s no better way to find out about colleges then to ask the people who go to them,” says Sherman.
Students can benefit from listening to others’ opinions as well.
Parents’ friends, friends’ siblings, or even acquaintances might know someone who went to the college you are considering. Speaking with alumni from the school can also provide a wealth of tips and pointers, ranging from dorms to choose to foods to stay away from in the dining hall to professors to take for Psychology 101. Each person’s insight could affect your decision.
Colleges hold open houses, in which prospective students can visit the campus with their families. Such functions most times include
complete tours of the college dorms, dining halls, student centers, sports fields, and libraries. To arrange, students simply must contact a prospective school directly and set up an appointment to visit the school. While on a private visit, they can ask specific questions to their tour guide, who is usually a current student.
High schools hold college fairs, which provide students with tons of information about many schools, all in one room. Representatives
from each college offer pamphlets of information about their respective schools and can answer questions on everything from academics to parking passes. These fairs are helpful for students because they can compare universities on the spot, since many schools are represented in one room.
Although students have the freedom to perform their own research and can essentially be their own college coaches, high school guidance counselors are still incredibly useful resources. “We want the students to fully understand the college of their choice and feel comfortable and motivated to start this exciting new chapter in their lives,” says Kaplan.
Therefore, they try to provide as much assistance as possible by offering information, tips, and other tools. For example, high school guidance offices have online programs for students to use to research colleges and compare them to others. “My school offers a great college planning resource. We can look at the GPA that the college requires and what different types of activities that we need to do to get into that certain college. It’s great!” says Julie McDonald, a high school sophomore from Pennsylvania.
Guidance counselors also may have direct relationships with deans or advisors at certain colleges. They may know helpful information about what a certain college looks for in prospective students. They could provide tips and advice on how to ace a college interview or what to stress in a college essay. Consulting with a guidance counselor could be the difference between acceptance and rejection at the school of your choice.
“We advise students to think about where they would like to see themselves 10 years from now. Do they want a conventional 9-5 job, or would they like more flexibility? We never want to pressure them into something that they do not want to do. The decision is ultimately
up to them, but we try to guide them down the right path and make sure they know the positives and negatives of each career path that
they are interested in,” says Kaplan.
Therefore, the choice is up to you. You can act as your own guidance counselor and use the Internet and your own resources to
decide what college to attend or whether to attend college at all; or you can go the old-fashioned route and work with your high school guidance counselor and/or a career coach when making your decision.
Many students are happy not to have to choose one or the other and are taking advantage of all the resources available to them
before making the final decision about where to spend the next four to six years of their lives. Knowledge is power!