how to research colleges

How to Research Colleges

Mari DeCristo College Planning, College Search

If you’re a junior or senior in high school, one of your goals is likely to find the right college. If you’ve started looking, you know there’s an overwhelming amount of information out there. It’s like looking at a mountain you have no idea how to climb.

If that sounds like you, you’re not alone.

Most high school students don’t know how to research colleges or where to find the best college information. In fact, they often don’t even know what to look for. All understandable, as no one actually teaches you how to research colleges.

What You’ll Learn in this Post
My goal for this post is to show you how to research colleges so you can find schools that are right for you. I’ll help you identify the information you need and then I’ll show you exactly how and where to find it.

To start, I’m assuming you have a list of colleges you want to research. If you need help creating a list, click here for my post on How to Find Colleges – Starting the College Search

Okay, let’s get started.

Researching colleges is really a two-step process.

Step 1: Identifying what you want in a college – This will guide your research.

Step 2: Finding out whether a college has what you want – This is where you actually do your research.

Below is a process that will help you identify your college needs and show you resources that will make your research productive and fast.

How to Research Colleges

STEP 1 – Identifying what you want in a college

Before doing any research it’s important that you know what you’re looking for. You need to know what type of college you’re most comfortable with and what features a college should have.

The goal for Step 1 is to come up with a list of those features. I call this your college “wants” list. You’ll use this list later for your research in Step 2.

To get you started, I’ve created the College Checklist. This list contains items that may be important to you as a college student.

The items on the College Checklist are listed below. Your task is to go through the list and identify those items that are important to you. Not every item will make your “wants” list. If there are things that aren’t on the list but that are important to you, make sure you add them.

Click Here for the College Checklist PDF

The College Checklist

The College Checklist has four categories: college environment, student life, academic programs, and career.

college environment
It’s essential that you’re comfortable at whatever college you decide to attend. This is important for both your academic success and your social/emotional sanity.

Here are some of the major factors that will affect your college experience. Add any of these items to your list if they are important to you.

  • Size – Do you want a large, medium, or small school? Do you like knowing many people or being amongst many strangers?
  • Location – Three factors to consider.
    • Distance from home – There is an emotional component to being away from home. Do you need to come home only at the end of the semester, visit home every once in awhile, or visit often?
    • Area of the country – Do you want to be in a particular region?
    • Type of community – Do you want to study in a city, suburb, large college town, or out in the country?
  • Transportation Options – Travel costs can add up. How easy is the college to get to and what travel options (airports, bus terminals, car rentals, etc.) might you need? Do you need to park on campus?
  • Religion – Religious affiliation or availability of religious programs
  • Diversity – Is this important to you?
  • Safety – What safety features are important to you, e.g., emergency phones, notification systems, etc.?
  • Housing – On-campus, off-campus, freshman housing, single-sex, coed, suite, large dorm, small dorm, etc.
  • Study Areas – Where do you like to study; library, dorm, coffee shop, outdoors?

academic programs
It’s crucial that a college has the right program to prepare you for your future career. If you don’t know your major yet, that’s okay. You may want to consider subjects you enjoyed in high school. They’re usually a good predictor of a future major or career area.

  • Major/Career Interest – What area do you want to study?
  • Programs and Courses – Are there specific programs/courses that are important to you?
  • Licensing programs – Does your career require you to be licensed (e.g., nursing, teaching, physical therapy)?
  • Research opportunities – Do you want to do research at college?
  • College Credit Programs – Can you get credit or level placement for AP or IB courses you took in high school?
  • Summer School and Online Courses – Do you have an interest in summer and online courses to speed up your degree or save money?

student life
How you spend your free time is part of a healthy college experience. It builds friendships and networks for the future.

  • Student Clubs – Are there clubs that interest you?
  • Intramurals – Do you want to participate in intramural sports (for students who like sports but don’t play on a college team)?
  • Social events/activities – What social activities do you want to enjoy at college?
  • Places to Hang out, Eat – Where do you see yourself socializing, eating, etc.?
  • Athletic Teams – Is watching higher-level play in large venues important to you?
  • Employment – Do you want/need to work when you’re at school?

A couple areas of interest.

  • Placement office – Will you depend on the college placement office for job options?
  • Internship  Opportunities– Do you want to participate in internships?

Once you have your personal college “wants” list, the next step is to find information about those items for the colleges you’re interested in.

STEP 2: Where to Find College Information

For the second step on how to research colleges, I’m going to talk about some key resources where you can find college information. Some are better than others, and I’ll point those out.

college websites
The first – and my favorite – college resource is a college’s own website. College websites are, by far, the best source of college information. When anyone asks me how to research colleges, I tell them the first place they should go is the college website.

Now, even though the information on every college website is different, the good news is that most websites are organized the same way. In fact, once you go through one website, it’s pretty easy to find what you’re looking for on the others.

Let me show you what I mean.

Here’s the top of the Furman College home page. Notice the menu options in the gray area. (The print may be small, so here they are: About-Academics-Admission & Aid-Campus Life-Athletics.)

Furman College
Here’s the home page from the University of Miami, with menu options that are very similar (Academics-Admissions-Student Life-Research-UHealth-Athletics).

University of Miami

Most college websites will include menu options on their home pages that are similar to those below.



Life on Campus or Student Life


Fortunately, most of the items on your college “wants” list can be found using these options.

To help you in your research, below I’ve listed the menu options where you’re most likely to find information about the items on your list.

  • Academics – Here you will find
    • Information about majors and programs/degree requirements
    • Individual schools within a university
    • Course catalog
    • Academic resources such as tutoring, study skills, and disability support
    • School calendar
    • Summer programs/study abroad/special programs/Online programs
  • Campus Life
    • Campus housing
    • Study areas/library
    • Athletics (may also have its own menu option)
    • Diversity
    • Student clubs
    • Events and activities
    • Campus safety
    • Religion
    • Career center
    • Location
    • Places to eat
  • Admissions

The admissions section normally has an option devoted to describing the campus. It may be located under a section called “Visiting Campus” along with information about campus tours and admissions information sessions.

If you want more information on college visits, click here for my post on Planning College Visits.

  • Search Box

Some things on your list may be hard to find. For these items, I recommend using the search box on the website instead of wasting time hunting around the website. Here are some items you might need to use the search box for.

– AP or IB credit

– Internship opportunities

– Travel to campus

– Student clubs

– Campus map – The campus map is a great way to get a feel for the campus

Here’s something you need to be aware of. All colleges have unique programs and you may discover them in your research. If there is something of interest to you, make a note of it. Many students apply to a college because of a unique program it offers.

For example, Northeastern University has an experiential learning program in which you learn on the job. Texas A & M has an extensive equine studies program for students interested in all aspects of horse care.

There are special high-level programs at almost every college. In fact, if you have a particular interest, you can use a search engine to find those specialized programs. For example, searching on “best college physical therapy programs” may provide some helpful resources.

common data set
common data set Another great resource is the Common Data Set. The Common Data Set (CDS) is an effort between publishers and colleges to present a common set of data about colleges.

This is the same data you’ll find in college guidebooks such as the Petersons College Guide, the College Board Guide to Colleges, and others. You can find more information about the Common Data Set at the following link:

If you want to see what information is available on the Common Data Set, click here for a PDF of the 2015-16 CDS.

Fortunately, almost every college publishes its Common Data Set on its website, and there’s a great deal of information on it.

To find the CDS for a specific college, type the following into a search engine: “common data set college name school year.

Here’s how to get the 2015-16 Common Data Set for Georgetown University.

Georgetown University common data set

A few schools, notably Duke, do not publish their current CDS information on their websites.

The College Data Set has 10 sections. I’ve listed them below, with items that might interest you listed underneath.

  1. General Information
    • Enrollment (size)
  2. Enrollment and Persistence
    • Diversity
    • Graduation rates
  3. First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission
    • Application, admissions, SAT, ACT, GPA data
  4. Transfer Admission
  5. Academic Offerings and Policies
    • Study options (e.g., internships, honors programs, accelerated programs, distance learning, independent study)
  6. Student Life
    • Activities offered, housing, ROTC program
  7. Annual Expenses
    • Cost to attend
  8. Financial Aid
    • Variety of information
  9. Instructional Faculty and Class Size
  10. Degrees Conferred
    • Number of degrees awarded by subject area

The CDS has other information you may be interested in, including percentage of students admitted, range of SAT and ACT scores, and GPA range of admitted students.

Petersons Four-Year Colleges guidecollege guidebooks college databases
College guidebooks are another source of college information. However, most of the same information can be found in the Common Data Set, which is free.

Guidebooks do have additional information, so you may want to check out the listing for the colleges you’re interested in. You can find copies of college guidebooks in most libraries and high school guidance offices, or you can purchase them.

college reviews
There are many college reviews on the web that you can find by searching on “college review websites.” These sites are not my favorite source of college information, but you may find them helpful.

My best advice for using these sites is to look at summaries or make sure you read a lot of reviews. Your impression of a school should not be determined by the opinion of one or two students.

The more reviews on the site, the more accurate the impression of the school and the lower the chance that fake reviews are driving the opinions.

current students recent graduates
It’s always interesting to talk to someone who has actually gone to the college you’re interested in. You have an opportunity to ask questions and get information you can’t find from published sources.

Again, one caution: You’re talking to only one person. Two people can attend the same college and have completely different experiences.

Here are some questions to start the conversation.

Why did you go there?

What did you like most about the school? What didn’t you like?

Did you get the classes you signed up for?

What did you do in your free time? Follow up with: Where did you go to do that?

What was your hardest class? Why?

What did you do on weekends?

How was the food?

You get the idea.

college visits campus tours
I don’t recommend college visits early in your research, mainly because they can be expensive and time consuming. However, they’re one of the best ways to get a feel for a school, and that’s extremely important.

Many students decide on a number-one choice after a college visit. They knew they wanted to go there as soon as they set foot on the campus. I’ve listened to many students explain why and they all say the same thing. It just “felt” right.

Here are some things to explore on a college visit.

Student Life

  • Student tour guides can give you a realistic view of student life. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.


  • Wi-Fi connection and speed – Especially in dorm rooms
  • Dorms – Are they updated for technology? Are dining and laundry facilities close?
  • Buildings that have classes in your major – Are they up to date? Do they have what you need?
  • Library – Technology and resources
  • Fitness areas – Are there areas where students can work out.
  • Studios, labs, practice and rehearsal areas
  • Disability access – May or may not affect you.

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to visit all the colleges on your research list. However, if it’s an option, college visits are extremely beneficial to your college research.

For the best use of your time and money, first research your colleges using the other resources I talked about. This will help you avoid wasting your time and money visiting a college that doesn’t have what you need.


In this post, I gave you a two-step process to show you how to research colleges.

In the first step I showed you how to create a list of items a college should have to meet your needs.

In the second step I showed you how to research colleges by given you some resources to help you with your research.

I hope this two-step process was helpful.