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How to Find Colleges – Starting the College Search

Mari DeCristo College Search

How do you find colleges to apply to?

If you’re just beginning your college search, you may have asked yourself that very question. And in the back of your mind, there’s probably a slight fear of not being able to find colleges that interest you.

My advice is to just start. Immersing yourself in the search process is the best way to eliminate that fear.


Figuring out how to find colleges when you’ve never done it can seem overwhelming. However, once you’re into the process, you’ll quickly find that there are many colleges where you’ll be happy.

My goal for this post is to show you a step-by-step process that will help you find colleges to research and possibly apply to.

So let’s get started.

The process I recommend involves creating two lists.

For the first list, I’ll show you how to brainstorm a list of colleges.

For the second list, we’ll work on expanding your first list by finding colleges that meet your requirements. I’ll explain this in more detail when we get there.

List 1: Find Colleges with a Brainstormed College List

For your first list, we’re going to use a technique called brainstorming to start you on your quest to find colleges.

Often, when you have a daunting task in front of you, it’s hard to begin.

We start with brainstorming because it takes care of that problem. It’s easy to do and it gets you involved in the college process, but without the stress.

If you’ve never done it before, brainstorming involves writing down every idea that enters your head (or ideas that you get from other sources) without making judgments or decisions about those ideas.

In our case, we’re going to be writing down the names of colleges. You’re not going to spend time deciding whether you like them or whether you can get accepted. You’ll deal with that later.

The reason you don’t make any judgments or decisions when creating your list is because creating the list and judging its contents at the same time is inefficient and can bog you down. Not only that, it takes more time because your brain has to keep switching tasks. It’s easy to lose focus.

Let’s get back to our task. As I said, brainstorming involves writing down possibilities, in this case, college names.

possibilities sign
First, you’ll need a place to write down your ideas. That could be a piece of paper, a computer, a phone, whatever you prefer.

Next, you’re going to go though several steps to help you generate a list of colleges to which you might – and I emphasize might – want to apply.

Evaluating colleges will come later. For now your goal is a first draft list of colleges.

Let’s get started.

Here are the steps to follow.

  1. Write down the names of any colleges you’ve heard about and want to learn more about. Remember, just write down the names on your list. Don’t judge. When you’re done, move on to #2.
  1. Think about colleges your friends, parents, relatives, coaches, etc. may have attended. Add them to your list.
  1. Write down the names of any colleges within 60 miles of your house. (Yes, even if you’re determined to attend a college far from home.)
  1. Are there college sports teams you saw on TV and whose schools you are interested in knowing more about? Write those down.
  1. If you’ve taken the SAT and signed up for the College Search Service, colleges have sent you information. If any of those colleges looks interesting, add them to your list.
  1. Write down any colleges that friends, teachers, coaches, etc. may have recommended.
  1. Talk to your guidance counselor and ask him or her for recommendations. Let them know you’re just looking at options. 
  1. Add any other college you want.

You should now have in front of you a list of colleges. Nice work.

For the second list, you’re going to add to the list you just created, but this time, you’ll customize it by taking into account your college preferences.

List 2 – Find Colleges with a Customized College List

Step 1 – Determining what you want in a college

Let’s look at our task again: how to find colleges to apply to.

If you’re the one applying, a college should have programs, an environment, and qualities and features that are important to you.

So the next step is to create a customized list that reflects what you want a college to have.

But to do that, you first need to figure out what you want. And that’s what we’re going to do next.

To make it easier, we’ll use a series of questions to guide you through the process. Remember, none of your answers are permanent and you can change them at any time.

college location
The first question involves figuring out in what part of the country you’d like the college to be. Do you want to be close to home? Far from home? Within a certain distance from home? Or, ‟anywhere” is fine. Or, ‟I don’t know.”

You may find that you’re more interested in what the college has to offer than where it’s located. That’s true for many students. If that’s the case, include all regions.

If you do have a preference, indicate it by listing your preferred region or state. You can select as many areas as you like.


_____ Central (KS, MO, NE, ND, OK, SD, TX)

_____ Mid-Atlantic (DE, DC, MD, NJ, NC, PA, VA, WV)

_____ Midwest (IL, IN, IA, MI, MN, OH, WI)

_____ Northeast (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT)

_____ Southeast (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, SC, TN)

_____ West (AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT, NV, NM, OR, UT, WA, WY)

State(s) _________________________

Area of Interest or major
What area(s) do you want to study or major in? What field do you want to work in?

This may be one of the more difficult questions to answer, but it’s also one of the most important.

The colleges to which you eventually apply must offer an educational program that can prepare you for the career you want. Otherwise, what’s the point of spending all that money?

Some of you may not have any idea about your future career. However, as I just said, it’s really important to have at least a general idea of which subject area you’re interested in.

To help with this process, we’ve listed some of the more common college majors.

This is not a complete list, but it should be enough to help you identify your interests.

If you have still don’t have an idea as to what you want to do for a career, select an area based on what your favorite subject or course was in high school. That usually offers clues.

If you want a more detailed list of majors and careers, you can find one at

Now take a look at the list below and write down the area(s) you are interested in as majors. It’s okay to have more than one.

Majors and Careers

majors career interest

school size
What size school will you be most comfortable in? You can select more than one size, or if size doesn’t matter, select all sizes. The numbers next to the descriptions are the numbers of students.

  • Very Large (over 20,000)
  • Large (13,001 to 20,000)
  • Mid-Size (7,001 to 13,000)
  • Small (2001 to 7,000)
  • Very Small (Less than 2,000)

campus setting
Which type of area are you most comfortable living in? Here are some categories to help you find colleges in your comfort zone.

  • Large Urban Area (pop. > 250,000)
  • Small Urban Area (pop. < 250,000)
  • Suburb/Town close to a large urban area
  • Suburb/Town close to a small urban area
  • Town not near an urban area
  • Rural-Country

Again, you can select more than one size or all sizes.

At this point you should have a list of four preferences for college; location, major, size, and campus setting. Now we’re going to use those preferences to find colleges that match your criteria.

Step 2 – Using a College Search Engine to Find Colleges

Now that you have your college “wants list,” I’m going to show you how to use a college search engine to find colleges that meet your criteria.

There are several college search engines out there, and most are similar in the way they work.

For demonstration purposes, I’m going to use the search engine at You can find it at

Here’s a screenshot of the search engine. As you can see, there are many categories in which you can enter search criteria. We’ll be entering information into the sections with the green arrows, but feel free to explore and use any of the other categories to help with your search.

College search engine home screen

I’ll show you how to enter your “location” preference. You should be able to figure out the rest and add other criteria to your search if you want.

If you click on the “Location” button, you will see the following.

college search engine location

You can add locations by region or individual state. For this example, we’re going to add the Midwest to our search criteria.

Click on the ADD button next to “Midwest.”

locations after adding midwest
Notice that there is now a checkmark next to Midwest and that the individual states making up the Midwest appear below the list. You can remove any states you don’t want.

Also below the list is the question, “How important is this to you?” The default is “Very,” but you can change it to whatever your preference is.

You can add more regions or states if you wish.

As soon as you make your selection, a list of colleges meeting your criteria will appear to the right.

college database list of colleges
You will do the same for each of the other questions you answered; Majors, School Size, and Campus Setting. As you add more criteria, you’ll see that the list of colleges that meet your criteria will get smaller.

If you’re interested only in colleges and universities, click on “School Type” to eliminate community colleges from your list.

To limit the search to colleges to which you have a chance of getting accepted, enter your SAT scores, ACT score, and GPA in the “My Scores” section.

You now have two lists of colleges to get you started on your research.

One of the next things you might want to do is see if any of the colleges on your brainstorm list is also on your customized list. These may be colleges with which to start your research.

The Next Step

Your next step will be to research the colleges on your lists to learn more about them. We will be looking at the college research process in an upcoming post.


The college search is the first step on your road to college.

In this post we talked about two ways to find colleges: creating a brainstormed list and creating a customized list.

Having a list of colleges is a great starting point for your research and can get you over the hurdle of ‟where do I start?”