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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Silbernagel

3 College Search Tools to Help Build Your Initial List

person using online college search tools

There are dozens of college finder search tools available online. Unfortunately, no single search tool yields the perfect initial college list. I have a few favorites that I use regularly when researching lists for students. Below are my current top three.

Tip: Before you start looking for colleges, take a moment to take stock of what you hope to find -- private vs. public, local vs. distant, large vs. small. Big Future's Finding Your College Fit page provides resources to get you off on the right foot.

3 College Search Tools to Create an Initial List

Why I like it:

  • It has a nice set of filter options, including campus & housing, and diversity options. I especially like the ability to assess whether the campus is comprised of primarily residential vs commuter students (where students live can change the campus vibe).

  • It is visually appealing.


  • Students can filter for only one major choice at a time.

  • It provides only 6-year graduation rate data, not 4-year rates which, from a cost perspective alone, should be most students' goal.

  • There is a filter slider feature (Don't Care, Want, Must Have) that I can't seem to figure out (as in when I have played around with different settings, it hasn't changed my results).

Why I like it:

  • It has a “financial friendliness” search category that allows students to include search criteria for financial need met, student debt, and merit aid.

  • Students can several disciplines or majors and designate whether they want the search to filter for colleges that meet all their major choices.


  • There is no residential housing filter, which I find a convenient feature in other college finders.

  • The tool aggregates the admission selectivity category, making it difficult for students to know how they fit in based on their own academic stats.

Of the three, this is my personal favorite college finder tool. I use it at the front end of building a college list and at the back end -- when researching individual colleges for specific information during the list refinement stage. It is my go-to resource for finding out how large a particular program is at a specific college. But in terms of the initial list development...

Why I like it:

  • The map feature allows students to easily visualize and identify geographic areas to include in their search.

  • Students can select more than one major or area of study.

  • Provides detailed, multi-year information on tuition and expenses, program accreditation information, and outcome data (retention and graduation rates).


  • While this tool is one of my favorites in terms of the sheer amount and detail of the data it provides, the font is very tiny and the presentation is not very visually appealing.

Honorable Mention: College Scorecard:

Why I like it:

  • Very easy to navigate.

  • Provides earnings data for each college by field of study, so you can see those with the highest median earnings a year after graduation at a given institution.

  • Tracks indebtedness data, showing the median federal loan debt graduates leave with by program of study.

  • Allows the comparison between colleges among these data points. So students can compare the outcomes of graduates from specific majors across the colleges on their list.


  • The data are based on medians and ranges, so are generalizations and trend indicators.

  • Program-specific salary data are missing for some programs at some colleges.

  • Best used in addition to other data sources.


Regardless of the college search tool you use, your search may yield an initial list of 50 or 100 or more schools. Refine the filters and remove any colleges that you know will not match your priorities (simply click on the college name to view its profile). Then it's time to dig into the details of your research, keeping in mind your college priorities and refine accordingly.


Need help building your college list? I'm here to help.



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