How to Start the College Search Process

teacher helping a student at the governor's academy in byfield ma
Joe Coletta- Director of College Counseling

A Quick Guide for High School Juniors Getting Started on Their College Search Journey

What does college prep look like for a second-semester junior? And how can parents help juniors manage their many college search tasks while helping them maintain a healthy sense of optimism and intellectual adventure? Here are some tips for juniors and their parents as they prepare for the busy application season that will begin next fall. 

Keep the college search process in perspective
When I sit down with a junior at The Governor’s Academy for our first individual college counseling meeting, their most common concern is that their friends and classmates know exactly where they want to go to college and they know how they will get there. I reassure my students that uncertainty is not only OK, but that almost every other high school student feels the same way. Helping students understand that the college process journey is just as important as the outcomes helps build their confidence and allows them to set realistic expectations.

Set a realistic timeline for the college search journey
A rewarding college search requires a good deal of time and effort. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be done overnight. By starting the college process in January of their junior year, students can be fully prepared to submit applications by fall of their senior year. 

Take time to reflect on what is important to you
Before students can decide which colleges might be a good match, they first must know themselves. Reflecting on who they are, what they value, and what is important to them allows students to learn about colleges in a more personal, meaningful way. Often it also serves as inspiration for their college essay.

Do independent college research
The more students read and learn about their colleges independently, the more confidently they can make their best college decisions and the more compellingly they can articulate their admissions candidacy at the colleges to which they apply. 

Visit ten colleges in-person or virtually
Visiting colleges is an excellent way for students to gain a fuller sense of what they might expect from their college experience. Of course for some students, visiting multiple colleges is neither feasible nor practical. Start for example, with a college nearby. Even if it’s not at the top of the student’s list, just scheduling and experiencing a college information session and tour is a low-commitment way of learning how to make the most of a college visit. For families with limited resources, virtual visits are an excellent option. Indeed, doing a virtual visit for all colleges before an in-person visit is a good idea. It’s also a good idea to visit colleges with a range of admission rates, giving students a broader, more optimistic sense of their college options.

Discuss options for paying for college
Paying for college is a challenge for many families. If finances are important to your child’s college process, start planning now. Talk with your child’s college counselor and have an honest conversation about options for paying for college. Also, take advantage of the resources available, both in-person and online. The need-based financial aid process can seem daunting, but with some planning and basic information, it is often more manageable than families expect.

Draft—and revise—the college essay
The words “college” and “essay” in sequence are many juniors’ least favorite words! But with some guidance and time to develop ideas, juniors have all it takes to craft a compelling personal essay. As adults in their lives, we can certainly offer advice and be a positive sounding board. But we should resist the temptation to offer too much guidance and advice. College admissions officers neither want nor expect perfectly polished prose. They are looking for an honest, insightful voice that only a high school student can offer.

Start the Common Application in the junior year
Juniors should create a Common Application account and begin completing it before the summer. Juniors who engage with the Common Application early get a realistic sense of what to expect. And they can resolve any questions well ahead of college deadlines in the fall. 

AGAIN: Keep the college search process in perspective
Again, keeping it all in perspective is important. The concept of a “perfect” college match is neither realistic nor feasible. Students should know and be reminded that they can be successful at a range of colleges and that their success depends significantly on making the most of their opportunities, both now and at the college they ultimately choose. 

Each student, of course, has unique goals and expectations for their college search. And the more we—parents, guardians, college counselors, advisors, and teachers—listen to our students and hear what they have to say, the more effectively we can support their efforts and help ensure they craft their best, most effective college admissions candidacy. Our juniors have got this. And we are here to help!


Author: Joe Coletta - Director of College Counseling

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