6 Things to Look for When Researching Colleges

Application Strategies
January 14, 2020
When It Comes Time To Start Researching Colleges, It Can Seem Like There Are A Million Things You Need To Do…

Thankfully, researching colleges is one of the most straightforward processes in the entire college admissions process. Once students develop a system for their research, it becomes much easier and takes far less time. It can even be exciting to hunt through college websites, learning more about each college and its history, programs, and campus.

However, not knowing where to look for information beyond a college’s website can lead to hours of frustration digging through search engines. Add in the fact that there’s so much to learn about colleges—with the useful information often buried and difficult to find—that finding out more about a college can start to seem overwhelming.

Fortunately, when you know what you need to look for in each college and where to look for it, you’ll feel much more prepared to sit down with your list of colleges. So, we’ve gone into all the details below about why it’s so important to do your research, how to get started, where to look, and what you should be looking for!

What You’ll Find In This Article

The Importance Of Doing Your Research

As colleges across the country switch to more holistic admission systems, there are benefits to using the same holistic approach to choose which colleges to apply to. Taking a slow and big-picture approach to picking a college, where you consider everything a school can offer you, can help you feel more confident that the college you choose is right for you.

After all, in order to choose the college that fits your needs, doing your research for each college you apply to beforehand is essential.

One reason you’ll need to do your research is that too many factors go into your college experience to fit them all into promotional videos or glossy college fair pamphlets. Additionally, there are more avenues than ever for past students to provide an inside look at what it’s like to attend a specific college; this knowledge is often a far more genuine look at student life than a college tour can ever be. With this wealth of information available, you’d be remiss to not take advantage of it.

In fact, colleges expect you to do your research too.

This expectation is most noticeable in supplemental essay prompts, which often deal with topics or values that specific college holds dear. How a student answers these questions often makes it very clear how much time they’ve spent learning about the school.

However, the most important reason that you should be researching your college choices is to give yourself the knowledge you need to find the best college for you. Having a solid list of facts to back up your desire to attend a specific college can help you feel more at ease. Additionally, during the course of your research, you may find information that completely upends the idea of where you thought you wanted to go to college in the first place!

How To Start Researching Colleges

Researching a college means that you set aside time where you are focused on learning more about what a college has to offer. In order to do this, you’ll mostly be reading, but you’ll also be taking notes and asking questions. To make the most of your research time, you’ll want to use something to keep you organized, such as a spreadsheet, text document, or physical notebook.

As you work through your list of colleges, you’ll find a method of research that works for you. Some students may start with a school’s official website and branch out from there, while others may prefer to get their first impressions of a school from previous students.

While you’re working on developing your own personal system, use these tips below to help you get started!


First things first: the word “research” in this context isn’t an elaborate process that requires special tools or skills.

Often, you’ll want to go straight to the source and read over the college’s official website (see the University of Washington for example). Pages that will lead you toward the most information are often titled appropriately: admissions, apply, about, campus life, and the official blog are great places to start your research.

However, there are also a plethora of resources on the internet for students looking to learn more about specific colleges. WeAdmit guides for individual colleges offer an in-depth look at the colleges themselves while giving you valuable advice to help you tailor your application to that school. Other helpful websites for in-depth overviews of colleges are U.S. News and World Report and The Princeton Review.

If you’re looking for that insider-view that only current students and alumni can provide, check out Niche and Reddit; some schools have their own subreddits, like r/Harvard, and there’s always r/college for general questions.

Of course, remember to always take these reviews, posts, and opinions with a healthy dose of skepticism.

If you find every other post mentioning the same issues, it can be worth noting and doing your own research on, but if only one person mentions an issue it might not be as big of a deal as they say. At the end of the day, trust your own best judgement!


The truth of the matter is that there are likely several colleges where you’ll find yourself right at home. However, simply knowing this may not help you resist the urge to keep looking until you’ve found “the perfect college.”

With the wealth of knowledge available to you through the internet, your college counselor, and your support system, it can be hard to know when you’ve done enough research. Knowing when enough is enough is important, so you can then shift your attention toward your college applications.

As a rule of thumb, plan to spend at least two to three hours reading and taking notes about each college you’re interested in. For some colleges, you may spend less time as you discover you may not be a good fit early on in your research. Other colleges may have so much to offer that interests you that you spend two hours reading about campus life alone.

Once you’ve researched all the colleges you’re interested in, you’ll likely find that your list narrows. From here, your research will move from the internet and your counselors toward interacting with the college itself. From contacting the admissions office with questions, attending college fairs, or setting up a campus visit, there are many other college-related tasks that fall under the category of “research” that you need to make time for.

While you don’t want to rush when researching the place you’ll likely spend the next four years, you also don’t want to let your research drag on until you’re scrambling to send out college applications before their deadlines.

Create a timeline, even if it’s only vague dates in your head, to keep yourself on task as you start to research your college choices.

What To Look For When Researching Colleges

Now that you know where to look, it’s time to learn how to maximize your college research time by prioritizing the most important information.

When researching colleges, there are a certain set of things you need to look for for each school you might attend. From making sure you know what level of academic performance is expected to figuring out whether or not you can afford a college before you become too interested, there are basic facts and information you should learn about every college you’re researching.


One of the first considerations for each school you research should be the program selection. While it may seem obvious to ensure that a college offers your major (or multiple majors you’re interested in if you’re still undecided), this shouldn’t be your only consideration. When reading over a college’s programs and courses, consider the following:

  • What are the general education or core class requirements?
  • How does the college structure their schedule?
  • Does this school allow students the flexibility to design their own major?
  • Do the classes offered for your intended major seem interesting and valuable? Are related classes beyond the required classes offered?
  • What is your intended major’s department like? Is it the well-funded core of the school, or a niche department where students make do with what they have?


The academic rigor, or how comprehensive and challenging the school is academically, is an important factor to consider when trying to pick the college that’s the best fit for you. No two colleges will have the exact same expectations for their students. There are two-year community colleges designed to help you easily transition from high school to college, and at the other end of the spectrum there are Ivy League colleges famous for their challenging course loads.

When trying to determine how challenging a school will be, you’ll often be relying on a mix of information from the college itself, your college counselor, and current and former students. Asking questions about the professors, course load, finals week, and overall expectations for students can help you get a clearer picture of how this school may challenge you.


Thankfully, colleges across the country make use of a variety of support systems to help students achieve success. From mental health centers to career services that stay available long after graduation, colleges are creating new and innovative systems to serve students. Additionally, many colleges now offer systems or programs designed to help students make essential career-connections before they even graduate.

Taking note of the support offered at each college can help you develop a clearer picture of what types of services you can take advantage of. For some students, attending a college where they’ll be able to make connections with industry insiders is a resource too valuable to pass up. Other students may be attracted to schools that focus on holistic support and mental health to make college a less stressful experience.


Whether you plan on living on-campus all four years or spending your freshman year on campus and commuting for the rest of your education, the campus life of a college should still be considered. “Campus life” refers to how the following factors come together to create the overall atmosphere of the school:

  • The campus size, layout, and architectural style
  • The school spirit, from sports to community pride
  • On-campus housing and dining options
  • The extracurricular scene, from clubs to Greek life
  • Ease of transportation around campus and the surrounding area
  • Entertainment options on and off-campus
  • Student body diversity


Understanding how a college’s costs will fit into your plan to pay for college is essential when picking the right college for you. For the most up-to-date financial information, always defer to a college’s official website or literature (such as pamphlets or handouts received during college fairs).

Similarly, when researching the financial aspects of attending a college, it’s essential that you call the admissions  office before dismissing a school as unaffordable. Most colleges offer extensive information on any financial aid available, but may fail to properly display this information on their website. Even if a school seems unaffordable at first glance, there may be scholarships or grants available to ease the financial burden.

Of course, don’t forget that there are more factors than just the cost of tuition and your room and board to consider. Colleges farther away from home will naturally come with higher transportation costs, while colleges in cities with higher costs of living will increase the costs of off-campus adventures; and one must always consider that the meal hall isn’t always open and that you can only eat so many ramen noodles!


No two students are the same academically or socially, and no two colleges offer the exact same experience. We all have our own preferences, and if there’s a detail that matters to you in a college that others find “silly”, don’t let that deter you from learning more about how each college does or does not fulfill that detail.

For example, it’s completely okay if a school’s culture is a deal breaker for you; another school may be just as well-suited to you and have a great culture. Or, if you’ve set your heart on going to a school with a rich academic history, there are plenty of schools with a modern flair that still proudly honor their history.

If there’s something that matters to you in a school, don’t be afraid to make it a priority in your research, even if you think it’s a “silly” question to ask. However, don’t fall into the trap of not taking a school into consideration just because it doesn’t have everything you’re looking for—dig a little deeper and find what makes each college unique, and you may find new things to get excited about!

Doing Your Research Brings Confidence

Once you know how to quickly find the information you’re looking for about a college, suddenly the task of researching colleges seems a lot less difficult. Additionally, by creating a timeline for your research and learning about what to look for, you’ll create a structure that will allow you to take the stress out of researching colleges.

Of course, with the huge amount of information about each college on the internet, it can still be difficult for even the most tech-savvy of us to find what we’re looking for.

If you’re having trouble finding the right information or making a choice about which colleges are best for you, try reaching out to one of WeAdmit’s counselors. We’re experts on helping students through the college admissions process, and we’d love to share our knowledge with you as you take the first step into researching colleges!

Don’t forget that researching colleges is all about reading and connecting with other people. More importantly:

Always Do Your Research,  Because You Never Know What Amazing Things A College Has To Offer Until You Look!



Need more Information?

Gain all the information you need by getting in touch with our admissions team or booking a free 30-minute counseling session.