Don’t be Overwhelmed: 4 Ways Students Can Narrow Their List of Colleges

Choosing a college is one of the biggest decisions a student will make, and all the options can make it overwhelming. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be. “Looking for colleges is an enjoyable experience if you start early enough,” says Jeff Mavros, director of admissions at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. Here are four ways to help students narrow their list.

1. Tap into Resources

First, Mavros urges students who are entering their sophomore or junior year of high school to tap into the many college planning resources available to them.  

“Students should start with their school counselors, who are knowledgeable about the process and know enough about the student to point them in the right direction,” he says. “There are also online college guides, such as Cappex and Chegg, where a student can filter his or her search results by criteria such as academic area of interest. These can help narrow their list.”

Mavros explains that it also works in reverse: students can create a profile, and the colleges will match to them.

2. Visit Several Schools

To compare colleges and get an idea of what kind your child might want to attend, take trips to a variety of schools. “For example, students should visit a private institution and a public institution, ideally of varying size,” Mavros says. “They should also visit one that is closer to home and one that is farther away.”

Mavros recommends making an initial visit during a scheduled open house or visit day. “You can typically learn about the admission process, see a residence hall and meet with representatives from all over campus,” he says. “Make sure that you ask questions about important metrics like placement rate and graduation rate, as well as questions about quality of life on campus.”

After the visits, a student who might have originally expressed interest in attending a smaller college hundreds of miles away may discover she preferred the atmosphere of a larger campus closer to home and her family.

3. Look Beyond College Rankings

Mavros cautions students not to select schools based solely on college rankings. “Rankings have their place and can help to cast a wider net of options, but you might find they also exclude a particular school that might have been a good fit for you,” he says.

4. Don’t Fixate on Sticker Price

While money is a crucial factor when making a final college selection, costs should be put at the bottom of the list – at least for now. “Don’t use sticker price to determine your initial college list,” offers Mavros. “Schools that look unattainable on paper can sometimes become quite affordable after scholarships and financial aid are applied.”

As the list of potential colleges narrows, the student should start the application process. “Once the student has received an acceptance from a school, he or she can make another, more personalized visit for a final determination,” Mavros says.

The bottom line is that choosing a college is a big investment, but it’s also a personal decision. “Parents and students get hung up on attending the ‘best school,’ but the best school is different for every student,” Mavros says. “It really depends on what the student’s needs are. Remember to have fun with the process, and it will open up opportunities.”

Renowned for both its high graduation rate and its affordability, Illinois State University features a robust campus of 20,000 students while maintaining academic quality and small class sizes. For more information, visit, or call (800) 366-2478.

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