How to Do College Research Right

Is your high school junior putting off college research, complaining that it takes too long or suggesting that they know enough to decide which colleges they want to apply to? I get it. Researching colleges is labor intensive, but it’s also too important to rush. Going beyond the facts and figures (e.g., undergraduate student population, average class size, student-faculty ratio, 4-year graduation rate, etc.) allows students to think critically about the best living and learning environment for them. As students engage in the research process, they can refine the criteria they want in their college experience and choose colleges where they will thrive.

Here are four steps to help students research efficiently:

    1. Get a good guidebook. I recommend the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which includes descriptions of the 320 “best and most interesting colleges in the U.S.” The engaging narratives, which draw from quantitative data and qualitative research, are updated every year, and include information not available on college websites. The Fiske Guide is a great starting point for learning about colleges. Other good options include The Princeton Review: The Best 385 Colleges and Colleges That Change Lives.
    2. Explore the college website. College websites have tons of information for prospective students. Most have an “Admissions” page that provides information about dates and deadlines, application requirements and financial aid. Students can register for virtual or in-person information sessions and campus tours on the Admissions page. College websites also include information about academic majors, residential life, and extracurricular activities. On the academic front students should understand what courses, if any, they are required to take; how many credits are required to graduate; whether there are experiential learning options (study abroad, research, internships, and co-ops); and the range of student support services (career center, writing center, peer tutoring). If students have an intended major, they can look at the courses in the department, and the research professors are doing, to make sure their interests align. I always recommend students look at the course catalogue and find at least one class in a subject area that interests them that they would look forward to taking in college. On the non-academic front students should investigate clubs and organizations, understand the range of housing options and meal plans, and try to get a sense of the campus culture.
    3. Go beyond official messaging. If a student is interested in a college, they need to go beyond the college website to get unbiased, unfiltered information from students on the campus. One way, of course, is to visit campus and strike up a conversation with students. Luckily, students can also turn to sites like Unigo or Niche, where students post pictures, videos, and reviews about their college experience. If students have a particular type of cuisine they cannot live without, they can check out Yelp to see if there are any such restaurants nearby.
    4. Keep it organized. Students should take notes as they research colleges – many opt for spreadsheets, but any system that keeps information organized works. Students should write down what they like and what they dislike, continuously assessing and refining the criteria they must have and must not have in their college experience. If students like a college, they should add themselves to the mailing list and be sure to open, read and explore emails. Some colleges track “demonstrated interest” from students and one way to establish it is by opening emails. Students can also come back to their notes later in the admissions process when they are writing their essays—many colleges ask students why they want to attend their college, and good research notes are helpful for these responses.


When I work with students, I always explain to families that my job is to help students find colleges where they will thrive. My hope is that wherever the student lands, when they come back to their parents’ house for Thanksgiving, they can’t wait to get back to their “new home” after break.  Careful, thoughtful, and thorough research is what makes this possible.