How to start your college search


As a high school student embarking on your quest for college, you may feel lost or overwhelmed. You may have little guidance as you approach the admissions experience. Or maybe you’re getting more unsolicited advice than you care to receive – friends, relatives and that nosy passenger next to you on the plane would like to weigh in. Regardless of which category you fall into, you can benefit from the wisdom of admissions officers and advisors with decades of combined experience. I recently shared both a monthly overview of the coming year and a compilation of resources to help navigate the search and application process. Now listen to the voices of professionals who work with students and their supporters every day.

Ask the right questions

“At any time in the months to come, any time you think ‘where’, don’t neglect the ‘why’.” —Jonathan Burdick, Vice Provost for Enrollment, Cornell University

Salt grains

“I am an avid reader of Reddit and the contributors there worry me. I don’t think they understand that submitting an application full of extracurricular formulas is not the best way to represent their authentic selves. I would advise juniors to take what you read there with a grain of salt and not get too involved in the discussions.” – Jody Glassman, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment and University Admissions, Florida International University

Fasten your seat belt

“You are the driver of the process. Yes, there will be people analyzing your applications and you will get great feedback from parents, counselors and trusted sources. You can also get some less good feedback. Ultimately, however, you have to be behind the wheel. Never be afraid to disagree or question advice (with respect, of course). Your comfort/excitement around a school should determine whether it makes it onto your list – and nothing else. -Brian Ford, Dean of College Advisory & Student Advancement, Archbishop Williams High School

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Don’t worry, be happy

“You’ll have to be happy with the thought of going to a single school on your list. I don’t want you to apply to a university where you can’t see yourself for four years. This is critical to me. If you’re not satisfied with the potential of attending any of those colleges, we need to have a conversation and come up with more options. I’ve found that students who follow this advice generally have a much smoother and more enjoyable process than those who don’t.” – Alison Abrams, Senior Associate Director of College Counseling at Germantown Friends School

Be an adventurer

“Think of this process as a time of adventure, growth and opportunity – not something to be afraid of.” —Stefanie Esposito, Director of College Counseling, Dawson School.

Bright futures

“Have more confidence in yourself. You can be successful in more than one or two schools. University campuses are great places full of optimism, curiosity and energy. Enjoy visiting, exploring and spending time in the communities. If you don’t like the search, you’re not doing it right. The university’s search and selection process is like a case study or project-based lesson. You will use almost everything you do in it (testing, interviewing, reflecting, showing appreciation, networking, following up, representing yourself, making hard decisions, dealing with bad and good news, meeting deadlines) in your future. They will hope that you grow and better prepare for success in your future.” – Chris Boehm, Director of College Counseling, Archmere Academy

Privilege not ranked

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“AVOID THE US NEWS RANKINGS!!!! Less than 10% of the people in the world earn a bachelor’s degree, so going to university, any university, is still a huge privilege and a huge advantage for future earnings and advancement. It doesn’t even have to be a well-known or highly selective university. What makes the biggest difference is you and what you do while you’re there. So enjoy the process, dive deep into the university’s web pages, watch the university’s YouTube videos and find out what makes university a great learning experience for you.’ – Sharon Bikoundou, Associate Director of College Counseling, Carrollwood Day School

Look inside

“Before you even start looking at colleges, start with a self-evaluation of your wants, needs, interests, strengths, limitations, etc. Once you have those things in hand, you can find colleges that have good academic, social, and financial problems, rather than randomly choosing colleges because of name recognition, magazine rankings, or what everyone around you is doing. That doesn’t make the process personal, and this is a personal decision!”—Christopher Chiakulas, postsecondary counselor, John Hersey High School


“Identify three “must-have” features of your future college/university. Keep these three factors in focus as you explore schools. It’s too easy for perfect (or horrible) weather and charismatic (or less-than-engaging) guides to make you lose track of your goals for your desired school. These goals may evolve as you explore schools, and that’s okay. But above all, it is so good to keep an eye on priorities.” – Molly Prince, Director of College Counseling, Louisville Collegiate School

Trust your gut

“It’s a ‘process’. For starters, since you can’t apply until the fall, you’ll want to remember that you’re just “looking” and “visiting schools,” similar to going to Open Houses when you’re looking for a home. While there is a lot of data to consider, using your intuition – ‘what feels right about a university’ – can also be helpful.”—Brian Doherty, School Counselor, Westford Academy

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To communicate

“There are many good answers – not just one. Try to enjoy the discovery process as much as possible. And keep the lines of communication open with school staff and family members to make sure everyone is on the same page about supporting – and paying for – the college process.” – Lara Sandora, Principal Advisor, TIDE Academy

Keep an eye on it

Be open-minded, advice from friends, neighbors and relatives should be compared to what the admissions officers and college advisors know about the process. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.” – Joe Latimer, Director of College Counseling, Northfield Mount Hermon School

Start local, think global

“Look at different types of schools (small, medium, large, etc.). Always start your search locally, even if you plan to go far away, and find out what type of college/university is right for you.” —Dan Raffety, Director of College Counseling, Elgin Academy

The only constant is change

Realize that the landscape is always changing. We get updates seemingly daily on who needs scores now and who doesn’t. Also realize that with test-optional, the middle 50% scores are highly skewed.” –Dave Frick, Counselor, Christian Brothers Academy

Ultimately, the university search and application experience will be unique to you. Allow the wisdom shared above to set the stage, but you get to write the script. Enjoy the journey ahead. By this time next year, you’ll have some advice to add for those who come after you.



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