How to Research Your Ideal College & University

Applying to college can be a stressful experience for countless students, but eliminating the guesswork in choosing which colleges and how many to apply to can be simpler than you think. Students who carefully consider their admissions list will experience less strain than their peers who appeal to dozens of universities. It is recommended to apply a total of 6 to 8 schools.

Safety Schools

A safety school is a selection where you are reasonably assured that your application will be accepted. Your academic experience (GPA, ACT or SAT score) should exceed the credentials of the typical freshman student.

Thoughtfully examine the quality of life on campus to be certain that attending your safety school will nevertheless be a pleasant and successful experience.

It is important to consider financial aid when choosing safety schools, as these options should ideally be within your budget.

Match Schools

A match school is an option where your academic experience corresponds to the average range of freshmen for that university. It is sensible to assume that you will be admitted to a varying amount of the match schools you apply to.

Reach Schools

A reach school is an ambitious university choice where your academic experience is in the lower range or lesser than the scores of their typical freshman students. This should not discourage you from applying to a handful of reach schools.

Furthermore, the attendance cost of a reach school should not hinder your determination, because how much a reach school aspires for you often lessens financial burdens and increases the amount of financial aid you are rewarded.

Tips: Apply to a few schools in each of the three categories to give yourself options and ensure you are accepted to at least one of your choices. Weigh your happiness, financial options, and potential for success at each college you may attend.

Your “Ideal” School

When searching for a college or university, think about your abilities, motivations, interests, needs, and goals. What are the important characteristics that a college should have to be interesting to you? Ask yourself:

Which college will provide the best educational and overall college experience?

Keep this in mind as you evaluate what colleges can offer you and remember, the best college is the one that “fits you” the best. Don’t choose a name-brand college or university and expect instant success based college pedigree. Student success depends on engagement at a school that is a good fit.

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As you research schools, recognize that research by itself will not be enough to choose the college or university you will attend; chemistry must play an important role as well.

Write down the characteristics of your ideal school as a starting point in your school search. Create a wish list of all the things you want in an ideal school and them rank them in order of your preference.

Know that you don’t need to pick a major to pick a college. When selecting colleges, it is very helpful to know what your major will be, however, many students apply to college with an undecided (or undeclared) major. In fact, most college students change their minds two or three times before settling on a major. If your major is undecided, look for colleges strong in all courses of study and make sure it is easy for you to lock-in a major or change majors.

Factors to Consider When Selecting Schools

Generally, students consider the most important factors in selecting a college or university to be:

  • Academic reputation
  • Type of college (liberal arts or specialty schools)
  • Majors offered
  • Financial Aid
  • Geographic location
  • College setting (urban, suburban or rural)
  • Ranking
  • Proximity to home
  • Size of the college
  • Student organizations and social activities
  • Scholarships
  • Campus

You should select 3 or 4 “must have” college factors or characteristics that will guide your search efforts. These “must have’s” will help you eliminate schools that do not have these requirements and focus on the schools that do.

For example, if you only are interested in private colleges and universities in the New England area with a student body between 2,000 and 15,000 students, your search is already narrowed down to less than 50 schools.

Additional school factors and characteristics will serve to refine your selection down to a more manageable number of schools to consider applying to:

Additional Selection Factors

Think about the college characteristics that mean the most to you, such as:

Academic Rigor

  • How tough is the academic competition?
  • Do you want to attend a college where students typically score high on exams and will challenge you to do your best?
  • Would you like to attend a college with a less competitive atmosphere?
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Look at the freshman class’s GPA, SAT and ACT Test scores, and their high school class rankings to see who your college classmates will be.


  • Is the college the “right” distance from home?
  • Is it in the “right” setting (urban, suburban, or rural)?
  • Is it in an area of the country you would like to experience?


  • Are the overall college size and individual class sizes good?
  • Do you prefer a large campus with numerous majors, large classrooms, and a big library or a smaller campus where you will know more people and have smaller classes?


  • Does the college offer the right classes in your major and minor subjects?
  • What about other subjects of interest?
  • Does the college offer special programs, like studying aboard and internships?

Admission Requirements

  • What does the college require for admission?
  • What does the college look for in prospective students?
  • What is the percentage of student applicants accepted?
  • What are the average GPA and SAT /ACT Test scores of incoming freshman?
  • Do you have a chance of being accepted?

Student Life

  • Are there clubs, organizations, events, etc. that you will enjoy?
  • How is overall student life outside the classroom?


  • Are they friendly?
  • Will you fit in?


  • Are the buildings, science laboratories, and libraries modern and accessible?
  • Where are the laundry facilities?
  • What is located in the area surrounding the campus?


  • Are professors easy to contact?
  • Are they helpful?
  • Do they teach classes or do graduate students teach most of the classes?

Campus safety

  • How safe is the campus?

Colleges have campus police reports available for review or you can go to OPE Campus Security (fill in the “Name of institution” box, click on “Search”. Click on the college name from the list shown. Select “Criminal Offenses”, “Hate Offenses”, “Arrests”, ”Disciplinary Actions”, or “Fire Statistics” on the gray bar in the page center) Regarding the area outside of the campus, you should ask a college representative, , “How safe is the area surrounding the campus?”


  • How is the food in the dining hall?
  • Are there other on-campus restaurants or is there an on-campus deli/snack shop?


  • Is housing available after your freshman year?
  • What condition are the dorms (residence halls) in?
  • Are the dorm rooms big, clean, and modern?
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Greek Life

  • Are there sororities and fraternities on campus?


  • Are there school sports and intramural sports?
  • How good are the sports facilities?


  • Is there parking for your car?
  • Is there public transportation available on and off campus?


How much can you afford?

  • What is the average amount of financial aid awards offered to students?
  • Are financial aid awards mostly free money that you don’t have to repay (scholarships and grants) or money you must repay (loans)?

Retention and Graduation Rates

  • What percentage of students stay at the college for all 4 years graduate in 4 years?

This tells you whether students are happy and successful at that college.

Search Engines to Find Your “Best Fit” Schools

To complete online college and university searches, use the premiere search engine, StartSchoolNow College Search. Using this tool, you should be able to narrow your selection of preferred schools to 10 or 12 schools in 60 to 90 minutes.

  1. To conduct a college search, go to StartSchoolNow College Search.
  2. Choose your area of study and concentration.
  3. Enter your data and preferences.
  4. Check out the school results, and find the schools that are right for you.

Results show colleges and universities listed in order of how well they fit your criteria for schools (how well they fit your needs). The final list of schools also provides helpful details about each school, a Google map showing locations of the schools listed, and links to both web tours and college admission home pages.

In addition, a breakdown of how each college and university matches your criteria items is shown so you know which schools are the best match for you.

Search Colleges and Universities Worldwide

To search for colleges throughout the world, go to College Board International Index. This website sorts and lists schools on a worldwide basis and provides links to each school’s website.

Keep notes on the schools you may want to apply to and those you don’t like. Follow the steps outlined previously to narrow your college selection to 8 to 10 colleges.