Undergraduate Programs

5 Tips for Narrowing Your College Search

A group of students walking along a path with a building in the background and colorful trees of red, green, and yellow

Hi everyone! My name is Olivia Hoffman, and I am an assistant dean of undergraduate admissions at Clarkson University. I am here to offer some advice on turning what might be a long list of possible colleges into a more manageable list as you continue your search.

I’m sure you have a list of schools you’re interested in. You know what you’re looking for in an institution, but maybe you aren’t sure how to narrow that list of 5+ schools down to your dream school. With so many fantastic institutions out there, it can be tough to decide what’s right for you.

You may walk on a campus you thought you’d love and immediately think, “Nope, not for me.” Or you may walk onto a campus you thought you’d hate and immediately feel at home. Know what you want in a school, keep an open mind and enjoy the college search process! Below are recommendations to help you narrow down your search. The most important thing to remember, though, is that it’s all about fit for you.

Understand the Admission Requirements

A peice of paper with the red stamp of Accepted on it

How does the admissions office evaluate prospective students?

  • Know your SAT/ACT scores and GPA. What is the average for incoming students at that institution?
  • Are there language requirements? Some schools require a certain amount of foreign language credits. Do you meet those requirements?
  • Know your extracurricular activities and volunteer hours. Are they a requirement at this institution?
  • Are there required letters of recommendation? Do they need to be from certain individuals (math teachers, coaches, etc.)?
  • Check out Clarkson’s admission requirements, FAQs and financial aid information here.

Understanding Financial Aid

A paper with the words Student Loan Application and a green stamp that reads approved

Financial aid plays a big part in the college decision. Although something as big as years’ worth of education seems hard to “budget,” understand the sticker price, financial aid and loan process at that institution.

  • Public vs. private -Is the institution out-of-state? Are there different fees for out-of-state students? *Tip: Don’t rule out private education because the sticker price may be higher! Look into financial aid, scholarships, etc.
  • Scholarships – Does the institution offer their own scholarships? Do they accept outside scholarships?
  • Aid – What sort of aid is offered? Merit-based? Need-based? Do you need to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), the CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service Profile) or both? Does the institution cap aid?
  • Additional Fees – Consider additional fees that the institution might have: laundry, parking, activity fees, etc. This is where meeting with an admissions counselor comes in hand.
  • Work-study – Does this institution offer work-study? What on-campus job options are there? How does work-study “work?” Check out the U.S. Department of Education’s overview
  • The Financial Aid Office – At some institutions (like Clarkson), someone from the financial aid office will be your admissions representative, too! Meeting with someone who is knowledgeable of the financial aid process will give you an idea of what options you have for scholarships, need-based aid and so on.
  • A hand typing into a calculator with one hand and the other holding a pen and writing on a note padNet Price Calculator – You can find this on most school websites. Although it’s not 100 percent accurate, it can give you a decent idea of what you would pay to attend an institution. If you have questions or concerns about the numbers, contact an admissions representative. Check out Clarkson’s calculator here.

Make a List of “Must-Haves” and “Nice-to-Haves”

There are certain things you know you need in what will be your home away from home for the next 4+ years. Does the school have the major you’re looking for? (If you’re not sure what to major in, do they have programs for undecided students?) If you plan to play sports, do they have the team or division for you? If you plan to research in a lab, do they offer opportunities for undergraduate students?

Be willing and able to sort those must-haves into nice-to-haves. Do you really need 20 different places to eat on campus, or is that something you can live without? How close do you want to be from home — and is that a deal breaker? Knowing what you need to have and what you want to have will help you narrow down the schools that have both what you want and what you need.

Visit. Visit. Visit.

A group of people walking with the CAMP building and green, orange, red and yellow trees in the background

So you’ve searched the college website, and the pictures are beautiful. They have your intended major, and it’s a perfect two hours from home. But when you step on campus, you know immediately it’s not for you.

Trust your gut! You may think a school is perfect for you, but once you arrive think, “Oh no, it’s not for me.” That’s okay! That’s what college visits are designed for.

When you set up a visit, see as much as you can: go on a tour, meet with a professor (if possible), sit in on a class (if possible) and meet with an admissions representative. If you can, visit twice! If you’re looking at schools in places like New York state, you’re guaranteed to get all four seasons — so see what campus is like in the spring vs. in the winter. The more time you spend on a campus, the better of an idea you’ll have about where you’ll fit in there.

While visiting, ask lots of questions! That’s what admissions representatives are for, and the more you can learn about the school you’re at, the better of an understanding you will have.

*Tip: Learn about who you will be learning with. What is the student body like? Is the campus empty on the weekends? What sort of clubs do they have? What percentage of students are involved in clubs or other activities? Get to know the community you’ll be living and learning in.

Attend off-campus events, if possible. If the school you’re interested in hosts alumni events or information sessions in your area (off-campus), attend one! See if you can get a feel for the people you’ll be interacting with on campus while learning more about the school (these can be particularly helpful for students looking at school out of state).

Keep an open mind

A croud of people cheering one girl in a gray clarkson hoodie waving a green and yellow pompom

You may think you know exactly what you want to do and where you want to go, but the college search process can change your entire mind. That’s okay, and it’s much more common than you might think. You may be surprised by what you see!

You may need to revisit your list several times before you make a final decision — that’s okay!

At the end of the day, the college search process is about finding the best fit for you. You will get the most out of your college experience by attending a school that’s right for you — so be selfish! Understand the process, know what you’re looking for and keep an open mind to ensure that you pick the school of your dreams.

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