College 101: How to Create an Initial List of Target Colleges


Starting the college search from scratch is intimidating. There are hundreds of schools across the country and they all vary in size, location, program offerings, internship opportunities, and more. How do you know where to start?

If you’re early in the college search stage, this list is for you.

1. Start with a college search engine.

Rather than Googling a bunch of different colleges, start out with the Princeton Review’s College Search tool. You can narrow down by different fields and compare your options.  

2. Keep track of the colleges that stand out to you.

Using Excel might not be your idea of fun. (It’s certainly not mine!). But making a running list is the best way to make sure you remember which colleges stand out to you.

To make things less daunting, start out with a template and work from there. CollegeXpress has a template here, which you can download and edit to fit your needs.

When you’re looking at a college’s website, follow the gut reaction that comes up. If something makes you feel excited or something doesn’t sit right with you, pay attention to those reactions and mark them down on your sheet accordingly.

3. Narrow down by program.

If you know what you want to study: Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones-- you’ve known that you want to be a doctor or a teacher since you were ten. That’s great! Even if you have a general idea of the field you want to go in, you can start your search from there.

If you had your heart set on a certain school, but they don’t offer a nursing program and you are certain that’s what you want to study, it’s better to find that out early in the search process.

For undecided students: Skip to the next steps, and when you have a running list, search “undeclared” or “undecided” on each college’s website. See if you can find any information on special exploratory programs for first years. From Indiana University, to Northeastern University, many schools offer support to undecided students, so you can feel confident going in with an open mind and ready to learn about your options.

Photo by  chuttersnap  on  Unsplash

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

4. Focus on geographic area.

For some, living close to home is the goal. Living close to home means you can visit home on the weekends if you want. Another perk? If you come down with the flu during the semester, a family member could come pick you up.

Others students want to move to the other side of the country, hoping to become more independent and get a new change of scenery. While you don’t have to move a thousand miles away to have a transformative college experience, moving far away does lend itself to testing your limits and character.

Whether you want to stay close to home, live close to a city, or study near a beach, play around with different states as you’re searching. The Princeton Review allows you to refine your search and select multiple states.

5. Pick the type of environment.

The Princeton Review lists five different campus settings, from rural to urban. As you’re first starting out, you might not know what your ideal situation will be. Play around with the search and see which colleges come up.

You might not know what you prefer until you visit a campus and see its setting for your own eyes. When I was searching for colleges, I was determined to go to a medium school in a city so I could leave the quiet suburban life behind. Guess where I ended up? A large, rural school that was secluded and miles away from any city.


6. Think about college size.

One way to determine the size you’re looking for is to consider how you liked your high school experience. If you went to a high school with 150 students across all four grades, or 450, you can get an idea of whether you’d like a bigger or smaller school.

Imagine yourself in class. When you picture going to college, do you see yourself walking into a lecture hall of over 300 people on your first day of school? Or are you looking for something more intimate that allows you to get to know your professors better? Do you want to get to know almost everyone in your year? Or do you want to blend in and meet new people every semester?

(Note: Going to a larger college doesn’t necessarily mean that all of your classes will be large, especially as you advance into your major-specific classes. Usually, it’s the introductory courses that are on the larger side.)

Photo by  Austin Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Solidify your List by Visiting Schools

Visiting schools is the best way to get a better sense of the categories you prioritize and what matters most to you. As you visit different schools, picture what your everyday life will be like. Does the hustle and bustle (and inevitable, constant noise) excite you? Does the idea of being able to take public transit stand out to you? These are the kind of questions you want to start asking yourself as you visit colleges. Try to visit as many as you can to prepare you for admissions season.

Cover Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash