Your College Search and Preliminary List

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

Most students and their families are excited to have a college list as soon as possible. But good things take time. The assessment phase, using the questions and college features and factors below, is an opportunity to discuss your goals, expectations, and priorities, and identify the college factors that are most important to you, including college affordability.

1) Understand your top goals and priorities

Academics: You are going to college for an education, so your academic goals should always come first. Having an idea of the subject or discipline you want to study in college can help you fine tune your options. If you’re not sure what you want to study, or have multiple interests, you will want to identify colleges that can help you explore broadly before you choose a major.
Consider other academic factors like the importance of attending a ‘brand name’ college versus applying to schools that fit your testing and extracurricular profiles and offer good advising along with a good education. Also, consider your learning style – will large lecture halls work best or small to mid-size classrooms where there is an opportunity for discussion and a chance to get to know your professors?

Costs: Sticker price can be a shock to parents, so I consider this factor a high priority in a college search. What is your family’s expected contribution, budget, savings, and retirement goals. Will debt negatively impact parents’ or student’s future life course? Is post graduate education in your future? How about any siblings and how do their college and post graduate education enter the mix. We will also review need-based versus merit-based aid to see if some of your costs might be offset by grants and scholarships.

2) Other features to consider and lower priorities

Other “college factors”: Do you prefer urban, suburban, or rural college settings? If urban, are you looking at an enclosed residential experience or one that blends into the surrounding city? What are your climate preferences? How important is it to be close to the nearest airport? How important is diversity? What about school spirit and Greek life?

Parent Deal breakers: Do parents have strong geographic preferences? Must the college have proximity to an international airport with direct flights home? Are parents concerned about campus safety? How about socio-political considerations?

3) Do a comprehensive search and develop a preliminary college list; the family then continues researching and visiting!

As your college advisor, I will do the search with your highest priority factors in mind as a first step and then depending on what comes into the mix, start to refine the search with lower priority items. Since I have visited over 500 colleges nationwide, I know many colleges, their campuses, and the surrounding communities very well.

I will work with you to ensure that there is agreement on the factors that will guide my college search and preliminary college list, one that is balanced by admission probability and well-matched abilities.

The preliminary list is not an endpoint but rather a starting point for families to continue researching schools and plan to visit their top choices. Be sure to keep the visits balanced by admission probability as a surefire way to get many rejections letters is to focus exclusively on highly selective schools (reach schools) and neglect other great options! In addition to visiting, read my article on 10 great ways to show interest in your colleges.