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How to Start Your College Search

Key Takeaways

  • Create a wish list of what you want in a college.
  • The College Board lets you search for schools based on a wide range of factors.
  • Don’t get caught up in where your friends are applying; do your own thing.

Junior year is a critical time for high school students. It’s when college preparation gets real.

You’ve probably seen friends, family members, or classmates announce where they’re going to college. It’s a time filled with excitement and pride. So, now that it’s your turn, how are you supposed to find your dream school?

Let’s begin.

Come up with a wish list

By now, you’ve probably thought about what you want out of a college. Those opinions could’ve come from movies, stories, or from being on a college campus before.

Think about your preferences by asking yourself some general questions. Do you prefer a big school or small one? How close to home do you want to be? Do you want a campus filled with grass and water, or one in the heart of a major city? How do you feel about a school with a big-time athletic program? Take the answers to these questions, and any others that come to mind, and start building your wish list.

Start surfing The College Board

The College Board lets you search for schools based on type of school, majors, price, location, and other factors. So start plugging away! This tool and other college search engines will help you find schools that have what you’re looking for.

Attend college fairs

College fairs let you speak to representatives from many schools in one place. At a college fair, you may realize a certain school — not originally in your sights — has a lot of the amenities you’re looking for. Or, you might discover a school actually does offer a certain program you’re looking for, just under a different name.

Representatives will have brochures and other helpful materials that provide more information on their schools. Maybe you’ll snag a free pen, flash drive, or keychain while you’re there.

Hold onto your mail

Prepare to be bombarded with college letters, brochures, and emails. It might be tempting to recycle them all or move them to your computer’s trash bin; first, give them a look. You don’t have to make a final decision right then and there. For now, review them first and place them into “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” folders. The “no’s” can be discarded.

Do your own thing

Your friends and classmates will soon become vocal about the schools they want to go to. Some will have a laundry list of schools they’re applying to; others, just a few.

Don’t get caught up in what they’re doing; do your own thing. Your job is to find the schools and programs that interest you. Does your best friend want to go to a school in New York City? That’s great — now you’ll have an excuse to visit NYC! Stick to colleges with programs or amenities that interest you.

Still, it’s easy to be swayed to go to college with your friends. Just remember that your childhood friends won’t be the only ones you’ll ever have. Every other college freshman, especially those passionate about your field of study, will also be there looking to make friends. Trust yourself that no matter what school you go to, you’ll make new friends there. Then you can merge friend groups.

Schedule college visits

College visits are your chance to “try on” a school, so once you narrow down your list, start scheduling visits.

During your visit you’ll get a tour of the school and have a chance to ask any questions. This is your opportunity to look at the campus, its buildings, classrooms, housing, dining halls, and everything else. Come prepared with questions and don’t be afraid to take pictures!

Check the cost

It’s no secret that college is expensive. After you’ve narrowed your search, check each college’s website for the cost of attendance (COA) and qualifications for merit-based aid. Then, talk to your parents about how much they have saved so you can figure out if a school is affordable or not.

Some students think, I can just pay off the extra cost with loans. That approach could get you into financial trouble. Just ask any recent college graduate who is still paying off their loans. Be sure to only borrow what you need; be realistic about the fact that you’ll need to pay it back once you graduate.

What to remember

You’ll find that once you tackle all of the items above, you’ll know which schools to apply to. But remember that the process has just begun. You’ll need to take standardized tests, seek out recommendations, and write your college essay(s). Then you can package all of that together when you apply to the schools of your choice.

More information

We are committed to helping you reach your potential. For more information about paying for college, please call 1-888-411-0266 to speak with one of our Student Lending Specialists, click here, or stop by your nearest Citizens Bank branch.

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