How To Narrow Down Your College Search

Deciding which colleges to apply for can be scarier than the applications themselves. With thousands of universities around the world to choose from, decision fatigue is real. When you first started thinking about college, you probably had many different thoughts going through your head. From thinking about dorms and majors to clubs and scholarships, there’s a lot that can change your college experience.

Before you start your college search process, you first must understand what is important to you. Ask yourself why you are attending college and what you hope to gain from the experience. Then, use this article’s tips to help you narrow down your search.

The Brainstorm Phase

The first step of narrowing down your college search is simply looking at your options. Begin your college search by exploring different universities. Look at their websites, read reviews, and talk to people you trust. During this phase of exploration, don’t worry about logistics like financial aid or academic programs. Simply write down any and every university that looks interesting to you. 

This process can open your eyes to universities that you’ve never considered attending. In fact, you may discover colleges that are completely new to you. It will allow you to think freely and stop you from making quick decisions. With a long list of colleges, you’re ready to move onto the next phase. 

The Nitty Gritty

During this phase of the college search, it is time to dig into the details. Return to your brainstorm list and learn more about each institution. While going through each college’s website, you’ll begin to figure out what’s important to you. Maybe a state-of-the-art recreation center is of less priority to you than a college with robust study abroad programs. It’s time to find out.

Take a Tour

Taking a college tour can be a great way to understand the campus facilities and culture. When deciding which university to attend, it’s important that you visit campus if you are able. Not only will you get to tour residence halls and academic buildings, but you’ll better understand the size of campus. In many cases, tours can give you the gut feeling you’re looking for. The feeling that you want to spend four years in this place — or that you don’t. 


If the university doesn’t have an academic program that interests you, cross it off your list. Yes, 80% of students change their major at least once. However, this doesn’t mean students should go to a university that doesn’t have a program with some initial intrigue. While there are so many fun aspects of college, the main reason to go is to gain an education. Be sure to check out all your options.

Residential Life

A lot of universities have first (and sometimes second) year on-campus living requirements. This means you are required to live on campus during your freshman and sophomore years. Housing options can vary from multi-person dorms to single-person apartments. It’s important that you feel safe and comfortable where you’re living. This is also the time to research the university’s dining halls and meal plan options. Pro tip: This is a great area to explore on your tour.

Campus Activities

While deciding where to go to college, it’s important to think about what campus activities you value. Think about if you’re interested in joining a club or Greek life. Maybe you’re excited to jump into an intramural volleyball league. Some universities will have robust campus events, while other universities are more commuter-based schools. You don’t have to decide now what you’ll do while on campus. But it’s a good idea to learn about what will be available to you. 

Admission Requirements

Universities have very specific admission requirements. These may include SAT/ACT scores, a minimum high school GPA, and even extracurricular involvement. Typically, universities will also require an admissions essay. These essays usually help to better understand you as a student, and why you’re interested in the university. Knowing how you fit into their requirements can help to prioritize universities you’ll apply to.

Financial Aid 

Many would argue cost of attendance is one of the most important factors of the college search process. When researching universities, prioritize understanding their financial aid process. Does the university have merit and need-based scholarships available? It may be beneficial to reach out to a financial aid counselor at the university. They should be able to answer any basic questions you have.

The List

After you’ve made notes on all your universities of interest, it’s time to start making some decisions. Create four categories of colleges: safety, match, reach, and don’t apply. Safety schools will be the universities where you exceed the admissions requirements. Match schools will be the colleges in which you meet their expectations. Reach schools are the ones where you don’t meet the minimums, but you think you have a chance. Don’t apply schools will be the universities that weeded themselves out in your research phase. 

Once you have created a list of these schools, start to prioritize the colleges you are most excited about. Applying to 3-8 colleges is a realistic and safe number of applications to commit to. Whether or not you choose to apply to less or more is completely up to you. However, keep in mind that college admissions are complicated. Schools are looking at prospective students as a whole package, not just a test score. 

As you narrow down your college search, remember that the college experience is what you make it. If you get involved on campus and make great friends, you’ll enjoy your time on campus much more. Finding the best university for you can be hard work. However, in the long run, you’ll be glad you put in the time and energy on your search.

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