Plan the Path’s Guide to Researching Colleges

Researching a college online to decide if it potentially fits your interests—and if you want to visit—is one of the fundamentals of the college admissions search process. And it’s a tricky task, because it’s difficult to know what a college is like, without being a student.

On the college website, of course, everything looks great—there’s no bad weather, no worn out buildings, and all the students in the photos are smiling. So what do you do to see through the marketing sheen?

Once you assemble your initial list of potential colleges, here are the essential next steps:

1. First, go to the school’s website. Look around. While the college’s site is going to present the best portrait of the school, it’s important to thoroughly read through it. You’ll get a sense of what courses are offered, who’s on the faculty, and what values and programs the school emphasizes. 
During this process, make sure you look at the academic menu. It will show you the majors and minors offered. See if something appeals to you. Even if you don’t know what you want to study, there should be interesting links to click on. What goes on in a film studies class? What can you expect to learn in a Peace and Conflict Studies course? One click will lead to the next. You’ll get a sense of the school’s character, its students, and its vision of education.

2. Next, closely peruse the websites of specific departments: If you do know what you want to study—or at least have some ideas for your major—take some time to scour the website for that department. Many programs post the curriculum for their majors, and you should examine those closely to see the classes and discover if there are any specialized or advanced courses that particularly appeal you. If you want to be a math major with an emphasis on economics, do the school’s classes fulfill your interests? If you’re thinking of becoming an English major and want to study journalism, too, does the school allow that? See if there are opportunities for independent study and research. All of this will help you become more literate about the possibilities and appeals of that particular school. 
Pro tip: During the “supplemental essay” part of the application process, this research will come in very handy, since you’ll have the detail to write about the specific reasons you want to attend that school.

3. Third: Check out the Fiske Guide. You can access the Fiske Guide through your high school’s Naviance account—and my students can access it through their Custom College Plan on Plan the Path’s college admissions platform. Take the time to read the explanations of the colleges that interest you (even though the descriptions are really long). They will provide an excellent overview of the school. It’s an objective look, and the statistics and explanations provide a baseline for knowing what you’re looking at.

4. After that, take a look at student review websites. These can be a lot of fun, but be wary of trusting them completely. I enjoy looking at Niche, particularly at the students’ reviews of the school. Each category of the college (academics, student life, partying, etc) is given a letter grade. Then below the grade is an explanation of why that grade was given. Further down in the profile, real students weigh in on their experiences. It’s a lot of fun to see the different opinions. Each school has critics, in the same way that every restaurant—even the best of them—has negative reviews on Yelp. I try to consider such review sites in the context of a larger understanding of the college.

5. Go to YouTube: Virtual tours of colleges on YouTube are great fun. You’ll also find all sorts of other college-related videos, such as the 10 best and worst things about University X, what I did on the weekend at Z College, and some laugh-out-loud clips in which teachers read their Rate My Professors reviews.

6. Finally, Facebook pages: Each college has a Facebook page. It can be informative and fun to look on the page and see what’s going on. Individual clubs also have Facebook pages. If you are an equestrian, for instance, look at the college’s equestrian Facebook page for activity. If the last post is from 2014, that’s not a very good sign.

7. Make your decision: If this online research makes you convinced that you want to visit the school, add it to your list. And if you determined that the school isn’t for you, then take it out of your possible pool.

To help in your college search process, we’ve created this handy checklist for your college visits. You can use it to keep track of each school’s details and take notes.

Click here to download our Campus Visit checklist, in pdf format.

Next up in our guides: What to look for and how to get the most out of your college visit.