How to search for the right college

“So… where do you want to go to college?” This question can either send a chill down one’s spine or create a sense of excitement to share their plans. Regardless of one’s reaction, searching for an ideal college can prove to be difficult. The choices are endless, the pressure constantly grows, and soon, they all begin to blend together. So… where do you go from here?

Searching for the right college requires more than just googling U.S. News’ most recent rankings. Don’t get me wrong, this list can be very helpful; however, it can’t be the only factor when searching for the right college. There’s pressure to only focus on name and rank but college is four years of your life. Outside of just being a place to prepare you for the real world, you’re choosing a community for the next 4 years, you’re choosing a location beyond campus, and you’re looking for the ideal academic environment – all while trying to save a couple of dollars.

How to search for the right college

To start your search, you must focus on two major factors: academics and community. Both encapsulate so much, but these two umbrella terms will open the door to discovering the right college for you!


As you begin your search for the ideal college, academics may take priority when trying to decide where you want to go. Generally, most colleges tend to have the same majors (English, Anthropology, Physics, etc.), but some may have a variation of your desired major (Data Science instead of Statistics or Social Policy instead of Public Policy). On the other hand, you may not know your intended major – and that’s okay too!

Wherever you might land, you can find advice below based on your current standing. Read the Student A section if you know your intended academic major. If you’re still discovering your major, read the Student B section.

Student A: You know your intended major.

The college search may seem easier when you know your intended major. However, that is far from the truth. Knowing what you want to major in may disqualify a few colleges, but it still leaves plenty of colleges to choose from. Before you begin looking at colleges, it’s important to try and understand what colleges are best for your specific major. This type of ranking may not fully align with the standard national rankings of colleges and universities. For example, if you’re interested in pursuing a creative writing program, you may expect Ivy League universities to be the best choice. However, the University of Iowa is a highly respected university that has one of the best creative writing programs in the United States. There is such a strong emphasis on writing at the University of Iowa across all of its disciplines that it was recently ranked in the top ten schools of Writing in the Disciplines category, according to U.S. News and Rankings. The top 5 best colleges in this category are ranked as Brown University, the University of Iowa, Yale University, Cornell University, and then Harvard University, respectively. This list should reveal to you that the best colleges for your interested program may not be in the top ten or even top 20 colleges in the nation. This is why I always emphasize that the rank of a school should never be the deciding factor when finding the right college.

Student B: You don’t know your intended major.

For someone who is more open regarding their potential major or wants a little bit more guidance on what to major in, this section is for you! You want to search for Liberal Arts colleges. These are colleges that believe in providing a well-rounded education for each of their students by requiring students to take classes in different academic subjects before they declare their major. These are the places that allow you to try out new disciplines every quarter, trimester, or semester – depending on what college you attend. This means you can put your STEM cap on for your first semester and switch it out for your Humanities cap in the second semester. These colleges tend to also believe strongly in interdisciplinary approaches, meaning you can see how different subjects blend together when addressing a social issue.


Community is the next major factor that should be taken into consideration when finding the right college for you. Every college has its own unique community. Some colleges place a large emphasis on their housing community such as the University of Chicago. Other colleges place a larger emphasis on school spirit through their athletics like Northwestern University. When conducting your college search, I always advise students to take some time searching through college websites and looking for tabs labeled “Community” and “Student Life.” This will shed some light on how colleges develop their sense of community and the types of opportunities they present to students to build their own. Every school will have hundreds of student organizations. However, do you want a school with plenty of traditions like Stanford? Do you want to find your future best friend through your residential house, like UChicago? These are questions that seem arbitrary now but can give you a preview of what each college’s community will be.

Outside of the campus community, you will also need to think about where the college is located. There are benefits to having a college located in a city as well as in a college town. When a college is in or near a city, this opens new opportunities and resources that become available to its students. This means access to internships off-campus, access to public transportation to travel across the city, and plenty of fun off-campus activities. On the other end, being in a college town has its own benefits as well. These schools also have a larger, more prominent school spirit. Due to the lack of public transportation, some campuses will even be more walkable – taking away the need for public transportation. Being in a college town can also impact the cost of living, especially when the cost of living in a city will likely be higher than living in a college town.

As you can see, the community is more than just the variety of student organizations on a college’s campus. As you dive deeper into discovering what college is right for you, remember to consider the different aspects that encapsulate a college’s community!

Looking for your next home

At the end of the day, you are not only looking for the best school – you’re also looking for your next home. Whether you’re beginning your college search, continuing your college search, or finalizing your college list, remember to focus on the best environment for you. Every college will support you academically, but not every college will feel like home. You deserve to find your ideal college, and we’ll always be here to help you!

Former Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago

2 years in University of Chicago Admissions
3,500+ Applications Read and Evaluated

After graduating with a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Chicago, Frank Sierra joined the University's Office of College Admissions. As an Assistant Director, he recruited students across the Midwest, evaluated over 3,500 applications, facilitated essay writing workshops, and conducted sessions on applying to highly selective universities.

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