Doing Your Research

Today, there are so many resources available to students looking at colleges that it is hard to know where to start. If you are determined to do a thorough job of researching colleges you will want to use several of the following resources:

College Guidebooks: Students often begin with one or two of the many college guides. Excellent and objective resources include The College Handbook, published by the College Board, and Peterson’s Guide to Four Year Colleges, to name only two of the better known. These comprehensive references contain all of the data needed to answer most of your factual questions. Guides that address, in addition, quality of life issues and are based on surveys of enrolled students, offer subjective information. These include The Fiske Guide to Colleges and The Insider’s Guide that is published by the Yale Daily News. If you want to get specific information about college majors, the College Board’s Index of College Majors is a good starting place. Ratings of specific academic programs, though also subjective in nature, can be found in resources such as Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges. Most public and many school libraries will keep copies of these guidebooks on shelves.

Beware of rankings that appear to make sweeping comparisons of the quality of entire institutions. You should know that these rankings are often based on data reported by the colleges themselves, the accuracy of which has recently been questioned. Such rankings often weigh factors, like acceptance rate of applicants or average faculty salaries, which have little demonstrable relationship to the quality of an undergraduate’s education. Remember that all colleges have academic programs of varying strength.

College-Produced Resources: Colleges will shower you with publications once you show any interest. Glossy viewbooks give a brief glimpse of campus, majors, student life, and the admission process. Videos produced by many colleges will give you some sense of a college's campus if you can't visit. Don't ignore the college catalog as a source of information, if it is available (most likely in your school library). It is the definitive place to:
  • look for application deadlines and requirements,
  • see the breadth and depth of classes offered in your areas of interest,
  • find a comprehensive list of scholarships offered, and
  • discover the academic credentials of faculty members.
Computer Resources: The computer has had a significant impact on the type and availability of new college resources. In the past few years there has been a proliferation of computer software, which is tailored to the college search process. Check to see if your school counseling office has available a college-search program to assist you in your college planning.

People Resources: Your school counselor will help you assess your qualifications for a range of postsecondary options and share the experiences of students from your school who have attended various institutions. 

Plan to meet with college admission officers if they visit your school in the spring and fall. Be prepared with questions that go beyond information you can look up in guidebooks. Ask about student satisfaction, retention, campus safety, support services, etc. Feel free to follow up with letters or phone calls to this admission person. 

Alumni of your school, who are attending or have graduated from colleges that you are considering, will be an excellent source of information. Because they are likely to have entered college with a background similar to yours, their experiences are particularly meaningful.

Talk to people who are working in careers to which you aspire. Ask for their recommendations about college programs and preparation paths. Many professional associations provide resources to students preparing for specific vocations. 

College Fairs and Open Houses: Watch the bulletin boards at your school for announcements of area-wide college fairs or open houses hosted on college campuses. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) holds free college fairs​ in many cities throughout the country. In addition to the general fairs, NACAC hosts college fairs specifically for students interested in visual and performing arts. At a fair you will have an opportunity to meet and talk with representatives from many colleges and universities, ask questions which are specific to your search, and get on mailing lists for applications. 

Visits to College Campuses: The very best way to gain first-hand knowledge of a college or university is to visit. At a minimum, make some visits to colleges and universities in your local area, which vary in size and kind. This will give you a baseline for judging the kind of environment you are seeking. It is very important that you visit the college you think you will attend, before making a final commitment. Arrange through the admission office to attend classes and stay in a dorm, if possible.​​
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