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High School

The Right Way to Explore Colleges

Paige Buttels

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In my work as a college counselor, I encourage high school students and their families to approach the college search process with the mindset that college fit doesn't mean finding the one college where a student would be successful (college is not like a soulmate), but rather seeking many colleges that would let a student be happy, grow and learn.

By the start of their senior year, high school students should have a list of three to 10 colleges they’re ready to apply to (in other words, they shouldn't just be figuring out where they want to apply). All the colleges, including the “likely” schools, should be ones the student would be happy to attend.

This means that, ideally, the college search starts earlier, during your student's sophomore and junior years in high school. But how do sophomores and juniors start searching for colleges?

If your sophomore or junior isn't sure what they’re looking for in a college, it's important to reflect on who they are as a person and their values, and then find a college fit. This ideal college fit is usually a combination of a place where a student feels pushed but not shoved, challenged yet supported, and comfortable in their social setting. At the end of the day, college is a place to explore who they are, but also prepare for a future career, even if they aren’t sure what that is quite yet.

Here are four steps to follow.

1. Establish College Fit Factors

To find their college fit factors, students can create a free account on and complete a virtual values card sort. I suggest students review and discuss their results with two or three trusted adults to refine and identify what is most important to them in a college match. These fit factors may change as a student gains more insight by going on college visits and talking with admissions representatives.

I suggest students start by visiting a couple of colleges close to home that are different from one another before committing to the size and location of a college they want. For example, visit a large public university and a small private college. Colleges in large cities, suburbs and rural areas have different vibes that a student should experience before deciding what types of colleges they want to research and eventually apply to.

2. Dig a Little Deeper

Next, students should begin researching colleges. I suggest using a free college matching tool such as the College Board search tool to identify colleges that fit the criteria the student is looking for. Some high schools use Naviance, in which case your student may already have an account.

Other college research websites that students may find helpful to learn more about colleges include:

And there are books as well, such as the Fiske Guide to Colleges.

Students typically start with a large list of colleges, perhaps 20, before deciding if they want to visit. I advise students to conduct virtual visits through the college’s official YouTube channel or use virtual visit websites like YouvisitCampusReelYOUniversity or CampusTours. Many of these websites have a professional or student tour guide talking about the campus just as they would on an in-person visit.

3. Contact Admissions Offices

Next, students should connect with college admissions offices to learn more about the colleges they're interested in. I cannot stress how important this step is, and many students want to skip it because they don’t like talking on the phone or speaking with adults they don’t know yet.

Pro tip: These college admissions professionals are typically assigned regionally. Initiating these conversations will also demonstrate interest to the college; demonstrated interest is a factor in the holistic college admissions setting because colleges want applicants who have taken time to truly understand their school and are therefore more likely to attend if offered admission. It's also beneficial for the student (and family!) because they’re saving time and money by not applying to a college they potentially wouldn't even want to attend.

4. Visit in Person if Possible

Finally, after a student reflects on who they are as a person, determines their college fit factors, researches colleges that fit, and speaks with professionals on campus, it's very important to visit in person if at all possible — a great summer activity between junior and senior years.

Then, when college applications for high school seniors open around September 1, your student is ready to apply early and perhaps benefit from early decision. They should be aware of each college's scholarship application deadline and process.

High school seniors need to continue working hard in their classes to maintain their cumulative grade point average. Meanwhile, family members can help them complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), apply for scholarships at their selected colleges, and apply for as many local/outside scholarships as possible.

Knowing your student has done their due diligence in the college exploration process will help you both be confident that they’ve made the right choice!

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Paige Buttels is a college/career counselor at a public high school in suburban Chicago and works with parents and students as a member of My College Planning Team ( She holds a master’s in counseling from Northern Illinois University and bachelor’s in psychology from Illinois State University.
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