Quite often I hear from parents and students who just don't feel like they know how to start the college search process. Let me provide you with six steps to starting a college search.
Step 1 - Be Flexible - One of the biggest stumbling blocks to beginning the college search is starting with preconceived notions about finding the right college. Eliminate now from your thinking that only public or only private colleges are right. Eliminate the idea that some college beauty pageant list like US News is going to tell what the right college is. And eliminate the idea that if the "sticker price" appears too high, the school is off the list. Start with a blank slate.
Step 2 - Start Now - Yes, now. The more time that you put into the college search, the better decisions will be made. Starting early allows you to take time... have fun with the process. If you get a head start on the process, then the student won't feel like the search is running (or ruining) their life. Starting early allows you to pace yourself, ask more questions, and get the right input.
Step 3 - Visit Colleges - Any colleges. It doesn't matter if they are schools the student is interested in, just visit them. Go on their campus tours. Students will gather valuable information about what they like and what they don't like by visiting any college campus. If there are colleges nearby where you live, then go for a campus visit. If there is a college near where you will be travelling on a vacation, then stop by for a college tour. And try to visit different types of colleges and universities. Let the student see what a small town, liberal arts college like Grinnell is like. Let them see what a 40,000 student urban campus like ASU is like. Show them what a small college in a big city is like. My alma matre, Jacksonville University, is 3,000 students in a city of a million. I loved it compared to the typical Big Ten, city-wide campus of the University of Iowa where I started.
Step 4 - Ask Yourself Questions - Start asking the right questions. Close to home, or across the country? Big campus, or small campus? City or country? What major or majors might I want to study? The college search engines on the Internet, like the one at Collegeboard.com, can help you come up with great questions to ask. Personally, I think "where?" is one of the first questions to tackle. You can find great schools anywhere in the country. College is one of the few times when a person can have complete freedom in choosing where they want to live. So you might as well pick someplace you'll enjoy? On the beach? In the mountains? Where it's cold? Where it's warm? The field is wide open. You'll always find great colleges no matter where you pick.
Step 5 - Make a List - Your questions will lead you to answers that are likes, dislikes, and must haves. Start listing those answers. As you build your list, you will be building the profile of your desired colleges.
Step 6 - Be Flexible - I started with flexibility, and I'll finish with it as well. Always make sure that your list is broad enough to include 6 to 10 different colleges, because that's how many you will need to apply. And don't feel like the decision you make as to where you commit for your freshman year in college is set in stone. Over one-third of college students transfer to another college at least once. If you find out you don't like it at a college, you can always change.