The College Search is complex and emotional. A College Counselor is an invaluable resource when searching for the right match College. Any advice I provide to help with The College Search will be incomplete. Having said that, I realize that not everyone will hire a College Counselor, or that you may not be ready to hire a College Counselor.

THIS SECTION IS DIRECTED TO PARENTS, BUT SHOULD ALSO BE READ BY STUDENTS. THIS IS A TOPIC THAT STUDENTS AND PARENTS SHOULD DISCUSS AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS PROCESS. First, remember that some private Colleges offer more aid, which means a private College may actually cost less than an in-state public College. But it is better for a student to understand that unless a lot of financial or merit aid is offered, their family can’t afford certain Colleges. What’s worse? A student applies and gets accepted into their “dream” College. They are ecstatic! Then they realize their parents can’t afford to send them to that College and that the amount of debt they would incur to pay for that College does not make sense.


Money vs. Motivation

Does money motivate you?

Money is an important consideration before you decide to visit a College

I consider the most important factor to consider before you visit any College is money. Let’s say you will be in Boston over Spring Break and figured you might as well take your Freshman High School student who is interested in Engineering to visit MIT as long as you are there. Your family’s financial situation means you will be offered only a small amount of financial aid. MIT won’t be offering any merit money and you are not keen on your student taking on $100-$300,000 in debt for undergraduate school. Here’s what I would be thinking if I were you: is my kid going to fall in love with MIT, and there’s no way I can afford it? Maybe it’s not a good idea to go visit MIT. Maybe instead I should drive a couple of hours to Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, which offers close to half its students merit money.

On the other hand, if I had a High School student who is quite capable, loves Engineering, but is not applying themselves in school, maybe I would take him to visit MIT. See this place? Do you like it? Well, you better get your academic act together and hope you can attend a great (probably not this one) College, but it’s not going to happen unless you start applying yourself.


Oh man, this is complicated – how do you whittle down 4,000+ Colleges to a list of 30 (or whatever number you choose) to consider? I find this extremely difficult, so I am going to show you some resources that offer advice on this complex subject. This would be a great thing to do with a College Counselor!

Pixabay Magnifying Glass

Here are just a few of the many College Search Tools

College Search Tools

These websites allow you to enter criteria and then they list Colleges that match your criteria. An added advantage of this process is that it gets you thinking about what you want. On the other hand, these search tools can be frustrating if you are having difficulty deciding what it is that you want. If there is a criteria you either don’t care about (geography isn’t an issue for you) or haven’t yet formed an opinion on (you don’t know whether geography is an issue yet), then you can skip inputting that criteria. Of course, the less criteria you input, the more results you will get, which makes this process less helpful. I think it’s a good practice to enter similar criteria on multiple databases, to see how their results compare.

  • College Navigator – The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations. NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. Because they are providing a public service, they give you lots of options to manipulate your results, whether viewing them on a map, downloading them into a spreadsheet or using their comparison tool.
  • College Board, the organization that administers the SAT and SAT Subject Tests offers “College Search” via The Big Future, a separate College Board website.
  • Petersons, the publisher of a number of College advice books, provides a pretty basic College search tool.
  • College Data provides a College search tool, as well as College profiles and scattergrams to help you see who is getting in where.
  • College Niche, an on-line only ranking and review website, also offers a College search tool.
  • College View offers a search tool with the option to save or compare you results.
  • College Confidential offers Super Match, another search and comparison tool.

Websites with Advice on Choosing a College

  • National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) – your College counselor should be a member of this organization. Much of the information on this website is for members only, but it has some great articles and advice that are available to all users.
  • The ACT, the alternative standardized test to the SAT, has a website with advice on how to pick a College.
  • College Board, the organization that administers the SAT and SAT Subject Tests offers “Get Started” with advice and articles.
  • Forbes ranking website also has relevant articles.
  • Princeton Review ranking website also has relevant articles.
  • Several large newspaper websites have a sub website targeted to all things College, as you’ll see if you click on this NY Times link and Wall Street Journal link. These articles might be about an issue at a particular College that gets you thinking about what’s important to you and whether you agree or disagree with a College’s policies.
  • A vendor recommended their personal finance website to search for and learn about colleges.


Pixabay StressfulNoticed how I put this at the bottom of the page? As I discussed in Data Mining Resources, while rankings use non-subjective stats to rank, the methodology behind the ranking (does 4 year graduation rate make up 5 or 15% of a College’s ranking as a good College?) is subjective. Furthermore, there is a lot of hidden information behind those stats. Does a College have a low 4-year graduation rate because 40% of its undergraduates choose to double major? In the same way you must consider any statistic with a critical ear, consider a rankings list as a bit of added information, not THE SOURCE for forming an opinion on a College.

I think there is a natural tendency, when faced with making a decision that involves considering overwhelming information, to simplify that information to bits of data. It’s a way of managing what appears unmanageable, and while logical, can oversimplify something that is complex. It can be difficult to accurately represent something solely based on bits of data.

Having said that, these resources have found creative things to rank beyond the typical ranking lists, such as Princeton Review’s “Reefer Madness” category, for schools that smoke a lot of dope. These rankings can be helpful in finding discussion points for visiting a College – why does X College have a reputation for the best food? happiest students? most popular study abroad program?

  • Forbes provides College rankings services and articles.
  • Princeton Review provides College rankings services. You will likely need to create a log-in account to access this information.
  • Huffington Post, ditto.
  • US News Colleges – a lot of information is free; more detailed information requires an annual fee.

The theme you see with this page is that a lot of news sources are focusing attention on The College Search. They wouldn’t be doing so if it wasn’t attracting a lot of readers. Knowledge is power… (a recurring theme in this website).

Check out What Parents Can Teach Their Kids About Money and College Budgeting for related posts.

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