What’s the very first step in your college journey? You need to decide where you might want to go. That involves forming and then whittling down a list. That List (yes, it merits a capital L) can lead to a whole lot of Overwhelming Thoughts That Make You Want to Eat Hershey’s Kisses Instead.
Before you head to the candy drawer, know these three things:
- This is overwhelming for everyone, not just you.
- This isn’t nearly as complicated as it seems thanks to the free websites we’ll explore below.
- All you need to know is the answers to four questions.
So let’s grit our teeth and begin our search.
WHAT FOUR QUESTIONS DO I NEED TO ANSWER?
These four questions:
- How far away do you want to be from home?/Where in the country would you like to be?
- What would you like to major in? (If you don’t know, you can input something general like “biology,” “English” or “history.”)
- Do you want to be in a major city, medium city, big town or rural community?
- How big do you want your school to be (size of student body)?
Once you’ve arrived at your answers, it’s time to head to one of the following websites. Behold. Magic awaits.
I call this ace in the hole No. 1. I love this website for many reasons, the top of which are:
- It is easy to navigate.
- It asks you to fill in a good questionnaire about yourself that takes about 10 minutes.
In addition to traditional questions about your GPA and top major picks, it asks you questions about how you learn and approach tasks, how confident you are as a student, and how you would behave in certain situations.
Expect questions like: Do you finish your work even if it’s boring? Do you enjoy learning new things just to learn them? How easy is it for you to avoid spending time with friends when you need to study?
- It has student reviews. Lots of student reviews.
Once you finish your questionnaire, you will receive a list of colleges (prominently featuring net costs) that fit you. Beware: There may be a lot of them if you don’t narrow down your major(s), optimal school size, and where you want to live in the country/number of miles you’re willing to be away from home.
Once you have your college picks, click on one of the reviews and ratings. You’ll find information about enrollment, acceptance rates, and tuition/fees about a particular school. You’ll also get information about intellectual life; drug culture; political activism; arts culture; alcohol use; professor availability; Greek life; and sports culture.
And you’ll get to read those student-written reviews. Check out this one by Morgan-Me’Lyn about Stanford University:
“I’ve made a lot of friends, made a strong connection with the Black, arts, and Black arts communities. All of my classes have been amazing and incredibly eye-opening. My professors for the most part have been great and willing to partake in conversation about topics from lessons outside of class and also allowed for conversation about real world issues outside of class during class discussions. That being said, there is a large amount of unchecked privilege on campus amongst students and professors that could be discussed and shifted.”
Ace in the hole No. 2! This website works in the same way as Unigo, but without the student reviews. You’ll tailor your college preferences by answering a variety of questions and, again, you will be presented with college picks with an expansive amount of information about each school, from acceptance rates to student-teacher ratios. Look for the “advanced search options” to go down this road.
Also useful: CollegeXpress includes a “People who liked this school, also liked …” box, listing other options that might appeal to you.
FISKE GUIDE TO COLLEGES
I’m including this option because it’s tried and true (it’s named after Edward Fiske, former education editor of The New York Times), though it isn’t free. The guide contains hundreds of reviews of four-year colleges. You can buy the book on Amazon for $25.
The online option is cool in that it includes built-in Google Maps of schools, so you can really picture what it’s like to be on campus.
(Google Maps, incidentally, is a great tool for writing “Why I want you and only you, dream college o’ mine” essays, especially if you can’t make it for a campus tour. For another hint about “Why I want you” essays, click here.)
Anyway, you might do well to spend the $25 (pretty sure your parents will be happy to hand it over) and see what Fiske says about the schools Unigo and/or CollegeXpress have told you about.
This is a rankings site using U.S. Department of Education data, as well as plenty of reviews from alumni and students. It includes rankings on 1,000 of the top colleges and universities in the U.S. Some of the categories featured include:
- best colleges
- best value
- top party schools
- best professors
- best campuses
- most diverse
This is another fun site containing 19 million reviews of 1.7 million professors at 7,500 schools, useful because the quality of your education relies on who is teaching you. By searching a school, you can find professors with the top reviews. Like Dr. Donald Feke at Case Western Reserve:
“LOVE PROFESSOR FEKE WITH ALL MY HEART. He made me love Thermo soooooo much. (I never thought I would hear these words coming out of my mouth). ENGR 225 with Mathieson made me question this whole ENGR thing. But man! I love Chemical engineering now. Like seriously. Every class, I’d walk out and be like: “MIND BLOWN!”
You can also search by school to find out more reviews about the school in general, including this little gem about CWRU:
“I feel CWRU was the best choice for me personally. Though like any school it does have its problems. Specifically, housing and dining halls. The housing center isn’t great and the dining hall is hella overpriced. But, I love the flexibility, I’ve had many excellent professors, there’s plenty of places to study and things to do. It feels pretty safe.”
AND A FEW MORE COLLEGE PICKS WEBSITES FOR YOU:
Obviously, there is such a thing as too much information. But if you’re looking for some sage school advice, Frank Bruni of The New York Times always delivers.
- “How to choose a college,” by Frank Bruni, The New York Times. Bruni cautions not to play it too safe by going where your parents did or your friends are going.
BEST QUOTE: “If you’re among the lucky who can factor more than cost and proximity into where you decide to go, college is a ticket to an adventure beyond the parameters of what you’ve experienced so far. It’s a passport to the far side of what you already know. It’s a chance to be challenged, not coddled. To be provoked, not pacified.”