What is the best advice for juniors on researching colleges?

In our latest feature, we're asking high school college counselors, independent counselors, deans of admission and other experts, such as financial aid officers and psychologists, to respond to our questions about all things college admission. Then we're bringing you their advice on the subject of the moment -- from essays and scholarships to interviews and extracurriculars -- including words of wisdom, mistakes to avoid, resources such as websites and books and advice on how to handle it all on a day-to-day basis. 

So… "The Question of the Month" for November is:

What is your best advice for juniors on researching colleges?

Alice Kleeman
College Advisor
Menlo-Atherton High School
Atherton, California

My best advice for juniors beginning their college research is not to come to a screeching halt the minute they see the college's posted Cost of Attendance (COA), or “sticker price.” Students might be merrily clicking through a college website, intrigued by engaging course offerings, fun clubs and organizations, and tempting housing options. Suddenly, at the sight of the sticker price, juniors throw up their hands: "Guess I didn't really want to go to that college after all."

Juniors need to know that only after applying to colleges, applying for financial aid, and being admitted to the colleges will they see a financial aid offer that details the true cost for that student/family. During the research process, students and families can come closer to knowing the cost of each college by using two tools: the FAFSA4caster (fafsa.gov) and each college’s net-price calculator (required by law on every college’s website). But the true cost appears on the financial aid offer each college will send admitted students in spring of senior year. So juniors launching their research would do well not to succumb to sticker shock!


Laura A. Schroeder
Director of College Counseling
The John Cooper School
The Woodlands, Texas

Researching colleges is much like starting a long-term research paper. Begin by planning ahead and breaking the process into manageable steps.  Here are some other recommendations to keep you organized:

  • Set aside about an hour a week to research schools starting in the winter of your junior year.
  • Before diving into college guides, consider what environment will be best for you.  How do you learn best?  What activities do you want to pursue?  Check out www.fiskeguide.com for a simple quiz if you’re struggling with this. College Admission: From Application to Acceptance Step by Step also has a series of questions students can ask themselves to help them figure out what they want.
  • Discuss your ideas with your parent(s) and be open to their feedback—now is the time to establish any parameters for your search. 
  • Use multiple sources, including websites, books and firsthand experience to gather information.
  • On a school’s website, look at:
    • Curriculum: what courses would you love to take?  What are you required to take?
    • Community: What are the students like? How residential is the campus?  What activities are most popular?  Reading the school newspaper usually offers a glimpse of the student culture.
    • Criteria: How are applicants evaluated?  What is required to apply?             
  • Check out other sources, including websites like www.unigo.com, www.fiskeguide.com and www.ctcl.org (Colleges that Change Lives).  These sites will complement your research, but remember not to let one site or one person’s experience shape your whole view of a school.
  • Take notes as you research—you’ll return to them as you refine your list.
  • If you love a school, look at where other applicants to that school often apply—this may help you find a school you’ve never heard of.
  • Resist the urge to believe there’s one perfect school for you.  Actually, there are many places you’ll be happy and successful, and good research will lead you to those schools!

Tom Shorrock
New Trier Township High School
Winnetka, Illinois

I personally have never believed that there is only one right college for a student. With the number of outstanding colleges and universities available to students, I advise students to keep an open mind about their options.   I think it is also equally important not to follow the advice and information that readily flows from their peers as fact.  There are infinite rumors that exist in any given community about what makes a college or university a “good” school.  Individually, a student needs to define for themselves what is “good” based on their own set of criteria and not let their peers decide for them what they are going to value in the process of choosing a school to apply to and eventually attend. 

Some of the basic criteria they should begin considering as juniors would be size, location, academic area of interest and the overall culture and student experiences on the campus and in the classroom.  Resources like the Insider’s Guide or the Fiske Guide can provide some basic, yet quality perspectives of academic and social climate at a school, but ultimately, nothing replaces personal experiences through a campus visit, lunch in the cafeteria, reading a campus newspaper, talking with a current student or tour guide, attending an overnight program or meeting with an admissions representative.  This may not be possible at every school or even for every student for that matter, but the overall point is that the more investigating a student is able to do with this criteria in mind, the more likely it is they will find a group of schools to which they connect and ultimately find the fit they are looking for.” 

Dan Gin
College and Career Counselor
Niles West High School
Skokie, Illinois

Keep an open mind in the college search process. Your mailbox will be filled with many college brochures, and you may feel like a rock-star.  But go beyond what you know to what you do not know.  We can get caught up with the "name" schools.  However, there are many college "gems."  By reading the brochures and doing a thorough search, you may be able  find one of these gems.  Happy College Searching!


Sandra Cernobori
College Advisor
Palo Alto Senior High School
Palo Alto, California

My best advice to juniors about researching colleges is to do it.  Students are so busy with academics, extracurriculars, and testing that often I find they don’t put in the time to really research colleges—even if they’ve made time to initially investigate and identify possible colleges that meet their search criteria.  It's important to research further, to make time to identify how/if the college fits -- academically, socially, and financially. 

Thorough research includes:

  1. Learn the basics; I think the College Board college profiles (the At-a-Glance, Majors & Learning Environment, and Campus Life sections) are a good place to learn about the college’s characteristics:
    1. Whether a residential or commuter campus
    2. Academic calendar type (semester vs. quarter)
    3. Student/faculty ratio
    4. % of out of state students
    5. Distance from major city/airport
    6. Ethnic breakdown and average age of students
    7. Retention rate (maybe even more important than graduation rate)
  1. Study the college website to learn about:
    1. virtual tours (colleges highlight what they’re proud of so look with a critical eye and you’ll learn a lot about what’s being featured or not)
    2. mission statement (the educational philosophy is important in how colleges think about applicant fit)
    3. academics (any core/distribution requirements and learning communities/teaching approaches)
    4. department webpage if you have interest in a particular major/field of study (not only can you learn about possible majors, minors, and concentrations, but also the “news”—what faculty and students are being recognized for, any guest speakers/events, etc. to get a sense of the vitality of the department)
    5. academic advising options (and support services, if needed)
    6. campus life (housing, food, sports, clubs, etc.)
    7. career services (information about when and how you can use their services; information about internships; post-grad outcomes)
    8. opportunities for undergraduate research, study abroad, community engagement
  1. Consult a guidebook (I like The Fiske Guide and The Insiders’ Guide) to learn a bit about the academic climate and social culture of the campus

4.  Investigate cost and aid; start with the College Board profile (the Paying section):

  • Cost of attendance and net price
  • Average need and non-need aid awarded
  • Kinds of scholarships available
  • Then, look at the net price calculator on each college's website to get an estimate of government aid and any institutional aid

Finally, ideally, this research should be done before deciding which colleges to visit.


Our experts' responses reflect not only the wisdom of their experience, but also their schools' philosophies and policies. There is a great deal of diversity in American education and some of that will be on display here. Make sure to check with your own school about their policy on any particular subject discussed here.

We would like to extend a special thank you to the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), who partnered with us on this post, and in particular counselors Marie Bigham of Greenhill School, Jody Sweeney of William Penn Charter School, and Sarah Markhovsky of Severn School.

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