How to Research Colleges
It is essential to begin the college process applying one tenet above all others: there is more than one great fit institution out there for every individual. A focus on “fit” can often mistakenly lead people to overly-focus on a singular institution at the expense of others, so it is important to approach the college search and research process with the expectation that there will be many schools where a student can be happy. That said, a powerful corollary to this is the fallacy that a “good fit” will be a school where everything is perfect or where there is nothing about the school that the student does not like. This is pure nonsense! Put differently, there will be things at every school -- even the dream school or the “perfect fit” -- where the student should be able to articulate attributes that they do not like. In our perspective, if the student cannot talk about the pros and cons of any institution, then he or she has not researched enough!
As a counselor, I am often asked how a student should go about researching colleges. I get the sense that students and parents are looking for a formula or at least some strategies for researching institutions. Unfortunately, I have not found any that work for everyone. The reality is that the college process is too individualized for there to be many (any?) approaches that are universal. Each student represents an assortment of criteria and circumstances held lightly (or not), all of which combines to form a unique set of needs from the process. And therefore, how the student goes about examining institutions is different for each. My advice tends to be more directed toward ensuring that the student adequately explores him- or herself so as to develop that awareness of important and relevant criteria for their search.
However, what I have found as well is that students do not spend enough time doing the research. At the very least, I see that students do not use the research they do as part of the research cycle, as I call it:
-Students need to apply their college criteria to their searching.
-Students need to examine (research) colleges that match their criteria.
-Students need to reflect on their research and process to inform their new criteria moving forward.
Too frequently students get stuck in applying criteria throughout their process without taking the time to modify and adjust their search based on what they have learned about schools and about themselves!
So, in light of all of this, there is one approach that I have found that works for most students when we consider this idea of “how to research.” What I ask students to do is to create a common, two-column pros and cons worksheet. It doesn’t need to be fancy or digital. As a student goes to the website of a college or university that they feel meets with wherever their college criteria are at present, they should create a list of pros in one column and cons in the other. What does the student like about this college? What does he/she dislike? In the early stages in particular, I ask that students categorize all that they find as a pro or a con and to record it. Good food? Highly diverse? Cold weather? Appealing majors? Ugly school colors? Nice dorms? Cool mascot? Gender imbalance? Keep jotting down all that you encounter that makes an impression on you! The question of when to stop is a simple matter: stop when there are at least three things in both columns. There might be 45 pros before a 3rd con is recorded, or there might be 8 cons before that third pro is found. The idea is that a school might be one to tuck away or return to if the pros outweigh the cons. In the early going, this accounting will be hard as students sort through that which is relevant and irrelevant.
So, the final and most important piece to this exercise is to reflect on what you have learned about colleges and yourself from this pros and cons exercise. What has become more important? What has become less important? What in the pros column is relevant, and what is irrelevant? What is significant and what is insignificant in the cons column? Cross-out the things that do not matter. Circle the things that are essential. Have you realized that your major is more important than anything else? Have you realized that the weather does not really matter to you? What can you learn from this experience? Now, armed with this new information, return to the search part of the process a little wiser and a little more confident about what you are looking for! This will help to evolve your search and present to you more colleges that seem to fit your needs.
As a closing comment, knowing that in today’s day and age the internet is the fundamental source of research material, be sure to make note of where you are finding information that helps you: are there particular locations on the school’s website that you find helpful? Testimonials? YouTube videos? Facebook pages? Interviews with professors? Keep looking around and testing the waters for what leaves a mark on you and your research process so that you can explore those common points with other schools.