Resources to help your high school student search for colleges. 

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 teen 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 that interest them, encourage them to visit the websites for those schools to learn more. This will help them get comfortable exploring college websites where they 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 the 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 they’re 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 teen who doesn’t know how big a school they want or how far from home they’re willing to go.

As your student completes one page and continues onto another, the number of colleges will shrink. That’s good. They 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 students 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 they don’t limit their 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.