Creating the List of Prospective Colleges

Resources to help your high school student search for colleges. 

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

One of the first steps in the college admissions process is compiling the list of schools. You might have some ideas, like your alma mater or a couple of state schools, and your son or daughter might be throwing around the names of a few colleges popular with last year’s grads. The better option is to start with a blank slate, especially with the numerous resources available.

When to begin searching for colleges The second half of junior year, like January or February, is the latest to get going on this part of the process, since your student will begin filling out college applications in the fall of senior year.

The initial list may include up to 30 colleges, which will take time to pair down to a final list of 10 by next fall. Just one more reason to explore in junior year.

Teen on computerOnline resources Websites abound where students can fill out free questionnaires to guide them to colleges that might be a fit. One is College Board, best known as the people who administer the SAT and Advanced Placement programs. The other is Naviance, which provides student achievement services to schools. My kids began their searches here and discovered colleges that otherwise wouldn’t have been on their radar. They were able to use their lists to start a discussion about college and, as a family, we were able to work on trimming down the lists.

If your student has mentioned a few colleges she thinks might interest her, encourage her to visit the websites for those schools to learn more about them. This will help her get comfortable exploring college websites where she will quickly discover that some are well-designed and easy to navigate, while others make it difficult to find essential information. That can be another factor to determine whether a college makes her list.

For more ways to explore colleges, consider checking out Wendy Nelson’s list of 10 additional search sites on her My Kid’s College Choice blog.

Using online sites Some of these resources allow users to search and create lists without setting up an account. If you want to get familiar with how these sites work yourself, take a look as a guest, where possible. For example, the College Board’s Big Future page allows visitors to search for colleges, find careers and more.

At the Naviance login page, enter the school zip code, then pick your child’s high school and use the guest option. Your student can set up an account when he’s ready to begin. A click on the Colleges tab gets things started. Users have a choice between the general College Search and the SuperMatch College Search, which gives certain criteria more weight.

Each site basically walks visitors through several categories, like type of school, location, cost and financial aid, and then additional choices within each section. College Board and Naviance allow for a search with more than one major, or none at all. Actually, every question is multiple-choice and allows the user to select “no preference” as an answer, important for the kid who doesn’t know how big a school she wants or how far from home he’s willing to go.

As a student completes one page and continues onto another, the number of colleges will shrink. That’s good. He can also choose to see results after each page. The subcategories are pretty comprehensive, like whether it matters if the college has fraternities and sororities, single sex housing, a religious affiliation or a particular sport at the intramural level. For my daughter, she wanted a college that offered dance as an activity.

Understanding the information Looking for colleges this way prompts kids to think about what matters to them, useful information for you, as well. College Board lets users save more than one search so they can alter criteria and view how that changes their results. Naviance also allows college comparisons.

As your student investigates these services, be careful she doesn’t limit her options too much. Keep in mind that when it comes to things like cost, some of those high-priced colleges can be very generous. Plus an in-state school might actually be farther from home than one in the next state, and more competitive for the “local” kids.

If your family has used other resources to make your list, please share them in the comments section below.

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3 Responses to Creating the List of Prospective Colleges

  1. Debbie Bunnell says:

    I also used to make our lists and check out more information about prospective schools — they include quotes from students. I had to register but it didn’t cost anything.

  2. Debbie Bunnell says:

    Also, when making the prospective college list, it is important to have some knowledge of your child’s academic profile to make sure they are applying to a balance of “reach” schools, “just right” schools, and “safety” schools. This is usually determined by your child’s grade point average and college entrance exam scores. Even if you are making the prospective college list before your child takes the SATs, I found the PSAT’s (taken in the fall of junior year) were pretty much right on target and helped us figure out what schools fell into what category. Let’s face it , not every child is in the top 10% of their class. You need to make sure that your child isn’t applying only to “reach” schools where they would have a remote chance of getting accepted.

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