How to start your college search and find the school for you

Steps on how to pick your school

College is a no brainer for some high school students after they cross that graduation stage—but picking what school to go to? Not so easy. Schools are bombarding you with information, counselors and teachers are pressuring you to gather all your application materials, and you’re stressing about making all of these choices—it’s a lot.

Choosing your school doesn’t have to be challenging—let’s start from the beginning. Here are some steps you can follow to start your college search and pick the best school for you.

#1: Think about the types of schools to look into

Before you get into specific schools, you should understand the types of schools that are out there and how they might serve your best interests.

1. Public: Public universities are government-funded schools—this explains why they tend to be massive. Because they’re big schools, they often have a ton of majors and degree tracks to pursue.

2. Private: Private colleges are funded by private endowments, contributions, and tuition. On average, they tend to be pricier than public schools.footnote 1 They also often have smaller campuses and have a more specific range of majors or fields of study.

3. Community college: Community colleges are local two- to four-year college programs. Like public and private universities, community colleges have a variety of majors, but tend to be less expensive among other huge pros.

4. Trade school: Trade schools allow you to receive a certification similar to how you would receive a degree from a traditional college, but trade schools are a bit different. Trade schools are institutions where you can receive training and hands-on experience within certain fields like carpentry, construction, and more.

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#2: Start your college search

Before you run to a school’s admissions site and look at the criteria for you to get in, start with the basics.

1. Talk to family members and friends who have been through the process before. They could have valuable insight into what you should look for in a school based on their college experiences.

2. Jot down all of your wants from a school. There’s nothing wrong with having a college wish list! Want a big campus feel? Need to be within an hour of your hometown? Love having D1 sports teams? Write down everything that would make a school feel right for you.

3. Check your mail (digital and physical). If you don’t check your email regularly now, you should get into the habit. Schools will start to send you information about everything they have to offer straight to your home or inbox.

4. Go to college fairs. These may be happening at your school or other schools in your community. Representatives from schools all over the country join together at one event to give you all the details about their school. It can give you a better understanding about what certain schools are like. It’s also an opportunity for you to let college personnel get to know you and see if you’d be a good fit at their school.

Pro tip: Leave your contact information with schools that you’re interested in! They may send you additional info and resources.

5. Look at campus websites and social media platforms. Once you’ve done a bit of research and talked to some people, you may have a few schools on your list to look into more deeply. School websites and social media accounts will have more info about campus events and student life. You can get an inside scoop on what they’re all about, and this can help you a lot with your search.

#3: Compare colleges

Now that you have a list of schools on your radar, it’s time to start some more in-depth research. Make a list of schools you’re interested in, line them up, and compare them. Just because some schools may offer the same majors or be in the same city doesn’t mean that they’re the same. Here are a few resources to help you compare and contrast schools:

  • College Navigator: this is a tool designed to offer college information to students, teachers, parents, and guidance counselors with more than 7,000 schools in its database.
  • College Board® College Search tool: this is a program that lets you compare schools and create your dream list.
  • U.S. News and World Report: this site offers education rankings on categories like degree programs, campus activities, diversity, and more.

Keep all your notes organized so you can keep up with your favorite schools.

#4: How to pick your #1 school

Hopefully you’ve narrowed down your search to some schools you can see yourself attending as a future college student! Now, you need to figure out what elements of a school are the most important to you—this can help you pick your #1 choice. Here are a few major ones to consider:

1. Areas of study. It’s totally okay if you don’t know what you want to study yet, but if you have an idea of what you’re interested in, keep this in mind when choosing your schools to apply to.

2. Campus size. Do you feel more comfortable blending into a crowd of 40,000 students, or would you prefer small classes and close relationships with peers and professors? It’s important to know if a big or small campus is your cup of tea.

3. Location. This will play a major factor into #4. Think about whether you want to stay close to home or go to school far away. Figure out if a city campus is your vibe, or if a traditional campus is for you.

4. Cost. The price tag—it’s a big deal. According to Sallie Mae and Ipsos’ How America Pays 2023 report, 78% of families eliminated a college from the running because of how much it would cost. You’ll have to think about the total cost of college: tuition, room and board, transportation, food, fun money, and more. But don’t forget that your financial aid, grants, and scholarships in your financial aid offer can help with that. Well, except for the fun money part. Scholarship Search by Sallie is the perfect way for you to find scholarships. Best part? You don’t have to register—and you can use filters to narrow down your search based on your background, major, the state you live in, and more.

5. Campus life. Maybe you want a school that’s big on sports and Greek life. Maybe you’d rather go somewhere with a big theater or dance program. Finding things to do for fun to enrich your life outside of academics is important.

You’ve got this

The college search can feel like a lot of work, especially on top of the other schoolwork and extracurriculars you might be doing right now. All you need to do is give yourself plenty of time and grace. Happy college searching!


footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

footnote Sallie Mae, the Sallie Mae logo, and other Sallie Mae names and logos are service marks or registered service marks of Sallie Mae Bank. All other names and logos used are the trademarks or service marks of their respective owners. 

footnote Advanced Placement®, AP®, and College Board® are trademarks registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

footnote 1.

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