The College Search Process: Make a Checklist!

College admissions to do list

The College Search Process: Make a Checklist!

Published August 29, 2019 | Last Updated December 30th, 2023 at 10:08 am

College admissions to do list

You’ve been discussing college for a few years with your child, but now it’s their junior or senior year of high school, and a final decision is looming.

The questions can overwhelm any parent: Where? How much? Will we need loans? Can we even afford four years of college? Should we pay for everything?

Where to even begin with this complex college search process? It may sound cliché and simple, but you should make a list.

Why Create a Checklist for Your College Search?

It’s important to take time to do this, because, after all, you’re investing in one of the biggest expenses of your family’s life.

A list creates a research guideline, and ultimately, will help to eliminate colleges that may appear dreamy on paper but aren’t matched to your student’s real needs.

Creating a College Search Checklist

First: Identify What Factors Are Important When Choosing A College

Make a list of what your student and you want from a college including all financial, academic, personal, and social needs.

College is expensive, and money concerns will likely top your list. You will need to figure out what you can afford, how much you need in loans, and if you student qualifies for financial aid.

Such aid can include a need-based scholarship, grants, outside scholarships, work study, and federal and private loans.

If loans are a part of your proposed college budget, you can use calculators like College Ave Student Loan’s calculator to figure out a monthly payment amount and the total cost of borrowing.

Both of which are important numbers to use as part of total costs as your student is building their college list.

Your student may be smart, but some academic help may still be needed at some point.

Many colleges offer tutoring centers, study groups, quick access to academic advisors, time management training and peer advisor systems. If these are priorities, list colleges that offer such help.

Personal needs can include an array of services including mental health counseling, nutrition support, violence intervention and prevention, legal clinics, food pantries, self-care classes, emergency grants, and even clothes closets.

A dynamic career center can help a student find a job after graduation and should be on your list. After all, that’s why you’re sending your student to college.

Don’t forget to consider whether you want your student to stay near home or venture into new places for academic adventures.

Equally as important? If your student would feel more comfortable at a large or small university.

Are there certain clubs or activities they are considering?

These decisions are as critical as ensuring that your student can afford a school or has the grades for admittance.

Second: Research Schools

List every college, even lesser-known schools, that interests your student and the reasons why.

Note whether a college is public or private.

You will need to know this information when applying for financial aid as some colleges require you to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, for federal student aid.

Many private colleges use a supplemental form, the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS), to award financial aid.

Follow the colleges of interest on all social media channels to learn about the campus, events, alumni, student life, and admissions.

Studying schools will help your student with the application process and help them to explain what they can contribute to a campus.

Does your student plan to major in computer science? Art? Engineering?

Look at courses, majors, and minors connected to your child’s academic interests.

Does the college offer extracurricular activities or clubs associated with a major? Also, research professors and their accomplishments, especially in the fields of study your student is most interested.

Remember, many top-tier schools, which are undoubtedly impressive, have a low percentage of acceptance rates, meaning acceptance is very competitive.

Additionally, grades and standardized test scores should fall within the typical range for admitted students.

Even if your student matches perfectly, acceptance is not guaranteed. Always have backup schools – even a community college or two – just in case admittance or financial aid doesn’t go smoothly.

After creating a list of 10-15 schools that your student wants to attend, use the school’s Net Price Calculator on its website as a starting point to determine the college’s costs.

The R2C Insights tool can help determine whether your student’s ACT scores are in the 25th percentile for a school in order to receive possible merit scholarships.

Research can eliminate, often quickly, colleges that don’t offer what your student wants.

For example, some schools may not have Greek life, something your child has always wanted to join.

Sports are important to some students while others prefer a strong academic environment. Just because a college has a stellar reputation, it might not match many of your student’s desires.

You can save time and money – avoiding application fees, for example – if a college isn’t a good match.

“College admission fees are expensive,” Debbie Schwartz, founder of Road2College and a mother of three, says. “Why pay more fees than you have to?”

Third: Narrow the College Search

Your student may have a hard time deciding where to apply especially if their grades, test scores, and needs match several colleges.

Don’t apply to too many schools.

What’s too many? Forty and upwards.

Aim for about 10.

Focus energy and time on those schools’ admittance applications and essays while comparing the schools’ financial aid packages. Don’t be afraid to contact schools and ask questions. They want to help.

Fourth: Visit

Once you have a solid list, you may want to visit the colleges if you can afford to do so.

The best time to visit a campus is when classes are in session.

Make appointments to talk to admission officers, tour the campus and explore the community around the college. (The college may seem perfect, but will you feel at peace if the campus is in a metropolitan city if you’re from a small town?)

Some colleges will let you stay in a freshman dorm to get a sense of college life. This is important, because, after all, your student will be living there for at least a year.

You can do this!

Your list will become your best friend as your student makes their important decision.

Start the college search sooner rather than later. Procrastination will only increase stress.

Focused research will put you and your student on an easier pathway to selecting the perfect school.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

How My Daughter Got $53,000 a Year in Merit and Financial Aid Plus More in Private Scholarships

College Spreadsheet: The Ultimate Guide to Making, Using, and Organizing Your College List

Getting Ahead of the Admissions Curve: Early Planning Was the Key to Our Success




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