top of page
  • Writer's pictureMichelle Silbernagel

Tips to Research Your College List

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

Part 4 of the College List Research Series

Researching the college list

Does the thought of researching colleges feel a bit overwhelming?

Maybe you're just not sure how to start or where exactly to look for specific information.

Fear not, college research is not an exact science and you won't be graded on it. But the results of your efforts can have an impact on your future. If you do a cursory job, you may end up at a college that doesn't actually make you happy or meet your goals.

Now is the time to dig into what the colleges have to offer you, so you can be sure the ones you ultimately apply to are colleges where you will be happy and succeed. There is are so many great colleges to explore, try to think of the research process as an online treasure hunt.


Parts 1 and 2 of the College Research Series give guidance on how to get focused on what to look for in a college. Part 3 helps you get started generating an initial college list. Now for the Research and Refinement step. In this article, Part 4, you'll learn five list research tips.


Tip 1: Break it up and space it out

Pick a day and set aside an hour. Take a look at your initial, big list of colleges (remember Part 3?) and select two schools. Choose one you've heard of and one you've never heard of or know little about, just for variety's sake. Research a couple of schools each week, until you've refined your list down to 6-12 colleges, keeping in mind the idea of creating a balanced list.

Tip 2: Get a read on the college "vibe"

Before you start digging into the details of the college, get an overall feel for the vibe of the college and the type of students who attend. If you don't like the vibe, there's no sense wasting your time with the rest of the research.

"College Vibe" resource #1 - The Fiske Guide

The Fiske Guide is the go-to-guide that includes detailed profiles for hundreds of colleges. You’ll read about campus vibe, cultural amenities, popular academic programs, students' opinions about teacher interactions, and more. You can buy the book or use the Fiske Interactive Online guide for a small annual fee.

"College Vibe" resource #2 - CollegeXpress's Lists & Rankings

I use this tool in the initial list-building stage, but the lists and rankings are also a quick way to get a sense of the college vibe. Here's how:

Pick a school on your initial “big list,” search for it in the CollegeExpress search bar.

Let's say Willamette University is on your initial list.

Type Willamette into the search feature at CollegeXpress and pull up its profile. From there you can learn more about the school (e.g., admission info, financial aid facts, etc.). But first, take a look at the Lists & Rankings section. Click More Lists & Rankings.

Willamette's profile

You should get a list that looks likes like the image here.

Willamette's lists and rankings

This list of lists'' quickly reveals that

Willamette is a liberal arts school that is also strong in the sciences, is likely to be an affordable school, has a robust study abroad program, is great for homeschooled applicants and students who may be a little shy, and is known for teacher accessibility.

What do you think? Do these characteristics pique your interest? Will Willamette make the initial list refinement cut?

Pro tip: You can also click on any list title to see all the other colleges that have that particular ranking (e.g., click Oregon Hidden Gems to see the other Oregon Hidden gems, besides Willamette).


While you’re looking at lists… Be sure to look at the suggested list of similar colleges. On CollegeXpress, these are found on the Overview tab under “People Who Liked This School Also Liked…" In the Fiske Guide, they are called Overlap Schools. Consider: Are these similar colleges on your Initial Big List? Should they be? When you look at the lists that catch your interest, are there certain colleges that are showing up across multiple lists? You might want to add them to your list if they aren’t already. If they are on your list, great, you are one the right track!


Tip 3: Go to the Source: The college's website

Once you have a general sense of the vibe of the college, go to the college’s website to begin your in-depth research. The college’s website is where you will find the most relevant information when it comes to academic programs, core curriculum, and specific courses you may take.

While you research, take note of if and of how the college meets your specific college priorities (e.g., must have a strong study abroad program or must have access to arts and cultural events).

In addition to your specific college priority fit factors, research, and note the following factors:

The core mission/value of the college This gives another sense of the college vibe. Some colleges prioritize community service, others prioritize intellectual curiosity. Housing

Is it a residential campus? Is housing required and for how long? Is housing guaranteed? Student life

Check out the clubs (identify three that you might be interested in). Consider: Greek life presence? Do students socialize on campus, off-campus, both? What are the campus traditions?


Is there a required core curriculum? Or specific gen ed requirements for graduation? Are you okay with taking these required classes? Does the college offer your major area or program of interest? Is it a competitive major and do you need to apply to the major or college directly? Are there opportunities to explore majors? Explore the major pathway course curriculums. Look at the classes you might potentially take. Look for (or use the search feature) to find course catalogs or curriculum guides, which will tell you exactly what courses you can expect to take.

Student resources and services

What are the recreational facilities like? What do you think of the academic advising? Do they offer pre-professional advising? What sort of student supports are available -- from tutoring to mental health counseling? Athletics

How important are sports to you? Do they offer intramural and club sports?

Student outcomes

What percentage of students graduate in 4 years? How many are employed after graduation, go on to a professional program?

Key admission criteria

Average GPA and average standardized test scores of admitted students.

Affordability stats

Visit the college’s financial aid page to find out the total cost of attendance and average net price, scholarship opportunities, etc. Connections

Note the name of the admissions representative for your area. If you have a question, call them! Admission reps have never been more accessible. College websites often have links to schedule virtual appointments. You may even be able to connect with current students, as well. You can find more student perspectives from and, which also provide alumni impressions.


Not finding what you need on the college website? Refer to the Additional Research Resources at the end of the article for more help.


Tip 4: Note & Record

Take notes and keep track of what you learn while you explore. Make note of your overall impression of the college. You may think you will remember some of the details, but believe me, it will all start to blur after a couple of deep dives into a few schools.

Create a document for each college that lists all of your criteria and your research findings. Or use a College Fit Research spreadsheet like this one.

  • Or download and print the pdf version if you prefer to take notes on paper.

Tip 5: Repeat

Repeat this college exploration process, tackling two or three colleges in a session, until you've made your way through your list. Some colleges you'll remove from your list immediately. Others may remain until you've finished your research and can see how they stack up against the other colleges you research.

By the end of the process, you'll find that some colleges meet many of your college priorities and others check off just a few boxes. You may determine that certain factors are more important than others. Maybe you decide that an affordable college with a friendly culture and accessible teachers is more important than a temperate climate and Greek life. Keep notes, so that you can compare and rate the colleges when you are all done.

Dig in, take notes, have fun, and please reach out if you need guidance or have questions.


Additional research resources:

o Cost tab and a quick review of Net Price ranges/Net Price Calculator links

o Retention rates including transfer and withdrawal

o Comprehensive outcomes: average salaries by major

o 4/6 year graduation rates & retention rates

o Size of departments: degrees sorted bachelors/masters/PhD

o Campus safety

This post with tips on how to make the most of a virtual college fair.


Like what you've read? Want more like this but in a shorter format? Subscribe to my monthly newsletter -- Touchstone Tips and get timely, relevant info about college admissions delivered straight to your inbox. Click here to subscribe.


bottom of page