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Start the Search

For some families, deciding which colleges a student will apply to is a pretty straightforward task. In today’s difficult economic times, many begin with the public universities in their state and then add a few private schools that offer a particularly unique program or great financial aid. For other families, however, particularly those with the resources to afford a wide range of private colleges, the process of narrowing down a student’s choices can seem overwhelming. Where should a family begin?

Search Engines

A good way to start is to conduct a search of colleges on a comprehensive college search engine, like the College Board's Big Future. It asks you to indicate your preferences on a variety of dimensions and then gives you the opportunity to rate how important each dimension is. Each time you answer a question, your list of college is refined, until you are left with colleges that fit your preferences. Another good search engine is the National Center for Education Statistic's College Navigator.

If you go through the search engine process with your son or daughter, the questions will prompt you both to consider – and discuss – most of the key issues that arise during the college search, like whether his attending a college a thousand miles from home is an option. Your goal at this stage of the search is to cast a wide net to identify all colleges that might be a good fit.

Parent Tip

Search engines are a great first step in the exploration of colleges, but in my experience they sometimes inexplicably eliminate perfectly good schools that fit the search criteria, so don’t rely on them exclusively to generate a list of colleges.


Guidebooks are a good next step, particularly those like the Princeton Review's Best 384 Colleges, that include survey data from currently enrolled students. This is a great place to learn what students think about their schools on a wide range of topics - from professors, food and dorms to the political leanings of students and how much they party.

Several other guidebooks also offer in-depth information on colleges; check your local library or bookstore to find a couple that appeal to you and your teen, but avoid encyclopedic guidebooks listing 3000 colleges. The skeletal information they contain is usually available for free – and in a more accessible format - through Internet search engines.

Human Resources

Be sure to ask people you know – and who know your son – which colleges they’d recommend. If he has established a relationship with his school counselor, that’s a good place to start, as she’ll have the advantage of not only knowing him, but knowing how previous applicants from his high school have fared at particular colleges. Regrettably, however, counselors at public schools today are burdened with many responsibilities beyond college counseling, and those at large high schools may have student loads in excess of 300 students. If your son’s counselor couldn’t pick him out of a line-up, you may want to consider working with an independent educational consultant. Beyond educational professionals, however, you and your son can get lots of useful information from older friends who are at college – and their parents.

College Web Sites

Once you’ve identified some colleges that seem appealing, visit their websites. College websites are a rich source of information on everything from admission and financial aid to majors, courses, and clubs offered. And to get a sense of what’s happening on campus, read the online student newspaper. (Just Google  the term “College X” student newspaper). When you’ve done all that, you’re ready to take your search to the next level—campus visits.

Plan Your Trip

If you’re the kind of person whose usual approach to travel is to get in the car and decide where you’re going along the way, you might be in for a world of aggravation on your college tours, especially if you try to visit more than one school.  Some colleges don’t provide tours on weekends,exam periods, or student breaks and others require you to register weeks in advance. Almost all have strict rules about parking coupled with limited visitor spaces and vigilant parking police. In short, consult the website of each college you intend to visit and plan ahead.

Parent Tip

If possible, avoid planning your tour during peak times. Visiting colleges during spring break is like Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving. If you have no choice but to travel that week, be sure to book your hotel accommodations well in advance and plan to arrive early for information sessions and tours.

Next article:  Make Campus Visits.


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