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How to Research Colleges and Find Your Best-Fit School

Key Takeaways:

  • It’s important to use as many research tools at your disposal early in the college application process, so you can narrow your “where to apply” list to just the colleges and universities you think will be a good fit.
  • High school students and parents can use research-intensive college reporting sites to compare the factors they consider most important, such as college price, academic excellence, on-time graduation rates, and job placement rates.
  • With initial research on both quantitative and qualitative data, a willingness to negotiate, and a consumer-driven approach, you’ll be well on your way to making an informed decision on where to go to college.

What are the best college search tools out there? Which colleges have the highest student satisfaction? Find out how to research colleges to determine your best fit. 

Which college is right for me? It’s a tough decision for sure: There are nearly 5,000 colleges to choose from, and so many factors to consider — from academics to campus culture, financial aid to alumni networks — at any given college or university. So it’s important to use as many research tools at your disposal early in the college application process, so you can narrow your “where to apply” list to just the colleges and universities you think will be a good fit.

There are a lot of college search tools out there, and you may be stuck over where to start your own research. What are the best college search tools? How should you interpret their findings and rankings? How many of these college search sites should you consult to get a good picture of a given college or university?

High school students and parents can use research-intensive college reporting sites to compare the factors they consider most important, such as college price, academic excellence, on-time graduation rates, and job placement rates. 

When starting your preliminary college fit research, set up a spreadsheet or chart with the following guidelines:

  • Which factors of a given college do I consider most important?
  • How do the colleges I’m considering rank for those factors?
  • How do the colleges I’m considering compare to each other, based on what’s important to me?

By answering these questions, you’ll get a preliminary sense of which colleges will be a good fit. Once you’ve identified your top fit schools, you can then schedule in-person visits for a campus tour and interviews with college admissions counselors, and select the schools you want to apply to (and your top-choice colleges among that list).

Phew! It’s a lot of research, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor (not to mention good practice for your term papers, once you’ve arrived at college). 

7 Financial Factors to Consider While Researching Colleges

Much of the college search will take place online — and financial research is no exception. Here are the key financial considerations you should track for every college you’re considering. 

1. Published Cost of Attendance (COA)

A school’s cost of attendance is the total amount it costs for you to attend school for one year. This number should include tuition, fees, room and board, and estimates for other related costs such as books, supplies, or transportation.

The COA should be easy to find on school websites and includes estimates for the same expenses, making it easier to compare one school to another. A school’s COA is also a major factor in determining what financial aid you’re eligible for. 

2. Available Financial Aid Based on Merit

Most financial aid from the federal government is need-based — that is, you and your family must prove you cannot afford to pay for college without some extra help. However, many schools distribute merit-based aid, which is based on the student’s achievements. If you have stellar grades or are a star athlete, for example, you may qualify for these awards. 

Review each school’s merit-based opportunities and see which you could qualify for, along with the requirements to apply. Conduct an internet search for the college’s name, plus “merit scholarships” or “financial aid” to zero in on the right pages or other helpful sites. If two otherwise similar schools offer you majorly different merit-based aid, that may be enough to sway your decisions one way or the other. 

It can also be useful to review how many students receive merit aid, and how much they typically get annually. This can help give you a real-world idea of how this aid is actually accessed and distributed at a certain school.

3. GPA and Test Score Averages

If you’re not sure you can qualify for merit-based aid, review the school’s average GPAs, SAT scores, and other similar indicators. This can help you get a sense of how you stack up against the rest of the student body. 

If you’re trending in the top 25% for these factors, that could be a good sign that you have a relatively strong application. And if you do this research early enough, you might even be able to take some steps to improve your scores before applying for merit aid. 


4. Required Financial Aid Forms

There are numerous forms you’ll likely need to fill out to apply for financial aid, no matter which school you choose. 

The most popular are the FAFSA and CSS Profile; the FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal student aid, while the CSS Profile is generally used to distribute institutional aid such as grants or scholarships. If you’re applying for individual scholarships or other merit-based awards, note the forms you’ll need for those as well. 

You want to make sure you track which schools require which types of forms, and also note the deadlines for submission. Deadlines can vary based on the forms required and your specific college, so make sure you don’t miss the due date. 

5. Percent of Financial Need Met

After the school has processed your financial aid applications and compared your eligibility with the campus’s COA, you can see the percentage of financial need that your school will cover — and how much you’re responsible for. 

For example, say it’s been determined that your annual financial need is $15,000 and your school agrees to cover $5,000 of that. Your percent need met is 33 percent, and you’ll have to find a way to pay for the remaining $10,000, either with student loans or some other avenue. 

Each school will cover a different percentage; a few cover 100 percent of every student’s needs while others may not be able to offer much. These numbers will have a major impact on the cost of your college (and your student loans, later) so it’s important to carefully track this among the top schools you’re considering.  

6. Net Price Estimates

The net price of a school is how much you’ll have to pay to attend after grants, scholarships, and other aid is applied. Knowing this number makes it easier to compare schools and you’ll have a solid idea of what you can expect to pay each year. 

Most school websites have calculators to help you figure this number out. You’ll usually be asked to provide some info about your family’s finances, your test scores, extracurriculars, and other relevant factors. With this, it can determine what type of financial aid you’re likely to qualify for and what other students like you pay at that specific institution. 

Not sure where to start? The U.S. Department of Education has a database of net price calculators to help.

7. Post-Graduation Outlook

Your college experience doesn’t necessarily end after your senior year. How do a school’s students fare after graduation? Record any data you find on post-graduation salaries, job placement rates, and graduation rates for each college.

It’s most useful to compare these data points with the same metrics from the other colleges on your list, rather than an average across all colleges. You can usually find employment info for alums on school websites, but the U.S. Department of Education also has a lot of career info in it’s College Scorecard tool (more on that below).

7 Resources to Help You Research Colleges

Now that you know what you’re looking for, here’s a quick overview of top college search tools to add to your college search toolkit.

1. College Scorecard

College Scorecard, run by the U.S. Department of Education, offers a one-stop-shop for students and parents to look up college information, covering parameters including test scores of admitted students, socio-economic diversity on campus, college net price, typical student loan debt, and student salaries after graduation, among a host of other criteria. You can compare up to 10 colleges at a time and export the report to share with others.

While the comparisons are robust, you may still have to do a bit of manual tracking. For example, the College Scorecard tool doesn’t currently enable you to break out its criteria by major (for example, graduation rates and starting salaries for business majors), nor does it track any criteria for student satisfaction data. 

Additionally, the College Scorecard tool only shows the averages of what students pay by school within specific ranges of family income. So if your income varies from year to year, you’re hoping for merit-based aid, or you plan to negotiate your financial aid package, there’s no easy way to get a customized financial aid comparison.

Be aware of these blind spots as you do your own research — and get into more specifics with direct conversations with your potential college’s admissions, specific academic deans, and financial aid counselors.  

2. U.S. News and World Report College Rankings

U.S. News and World Report released its first data-driven college reports in 1988 (after five years of opinion survey-based rankings). Today, it’s the grandfather of the college data industry, with students and parents able to parse listings from more than 1,800 colleges and universities — and many ways to slice and dice the data (college major, best value, region, etc.) General rankings are free to browse, or you can pay $39.95 to access U.S. News’ College Compass, which enables students to compare schools based on no fewer than 23 criteria, either at individual schools or in tandem across multiple universities and colleges.

Before signing up for the subscription, speak with your high school guidance counselor or college coach. Do they recommend using the College Compass, based on their expertise, or are there other (ideally free) resources you can use? If they recommend the College Compass tool, do they already have access and could you use it for your research? If you’re not working with a guidance counselor, can you find the same data via free sources (such as College Scorecard or each respective college’s website)?

Additionally, when reviewing college rankings from U.S. News, note that all colleges and universities are being graded on the same standards — which may not align with your own preferred criteria and personal goals. 

“The problem isn’t the U.S. News model but its scale,” says Cathy O’Neil in her book Weapons of Math Destruction. “It forces everyone to shoot for exactly the same goals, which creates a rat race — and lots of unintended consequences,” including potential market manipulation and self-reinforcing results.

Keep this in mind if you include U.S. News college rankings in your own college research. 

3. Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education Rankings

The Wall Street Journal/Times higher education rankings, encompassing more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities, focus on student engagement and outcomes compiled from survey data submitted from more than 200,000 students. Surveys ask students about satisfaction with their college experience based on their studies, interactions with instructors, and the reasons behind their college choice. Four criteria, or “pillars,” are weighted in each ranking: Resources, Engagement, Outcomes, and Environment.

Additionally, the Wall Street Journal/Times reports study worldwide higher education rankings with slightly different criteria, but individual U.S. college results can still be sorted by international ranking. This may be useful data for students interested in studying abroad or working internationally after graduation, and want to know how their potential school would be regarded in those contexts.

The Wall Street Journal/Times’ individual college summaries and results pages go a bit more in-depth than their competitors, but the actual college rankings as a whole don’t diverge wildly from those you’ll see on other college data sites. Still, note the student survey and international comparisons here as potentially valuable differentiators when doing your own college research.


4. PayScale

If you value how your college degree will impact your hireability and starting salary after graduation, consider PayScale’s annual College Salary Report. The most recent report surveyed more than 3.5 million respondents, representing more than 4,000 colleges and universities, in the areas of highest degree earned, major, pay, and earning potential through mid- and late-career. Both two- and four-year colleges are represented in PayScale’s rankings.

PayScale’s college report may be of particular interest if you’re undecided on a major and want to maximize your earning power or if you want to minimize the time it will take to pay off student loan debt. Using PayScale’s college report can be a good way to narrow your focus and hone in on the colleges that best address those high-earning fields and regions.

PayScale is a bit more transparent in its ranking methodology compared to other college ranking sites, but note a few areas for consideration: The smaller the school, the likelier it is that the sample size is smaller. Some data may also be subjective and not aligned with your values. Be aware that some of the qualitative data here may not align with your expectations or interpretations, so it’s a good practice to cross-reference PayScale’s outcomes with direct sources at the colleges that interest you.   

5. Money.com Best Colleges Ranking 

Money.com’s Best Colleges Ranking is a comprehensive comparison of nearly 750 schools. Colleges are ranked by 26 factors and weighted based on the quality of education, affordability, and graduate outcomes. 

You can quickly view a school's median test scores, estimated costs, average student debt, and average starting salaries, but each school’s page on Money.com also includes other data regarding costs, financial aid, and admissions factors. You can even view schools based on Money.com’s alternative rankings, such as the top small colleges or the schools where more than half of applicants are accepted.

But perhaps the most useful part of Money.com’s rankings are the customizable rankings you can make. Start by selecting a geographic region or state, and you can customize your search based on school size, available sports programs, male-female ratios, or even more subjective priorities such as the college’s odds of landing you a high-paying job. 

6. Washington Monthly College Rankings

According to Washington Monthly, its annual college rankings rate four-year schools “based on what they do for the country.” This nontraditional list takes into account each school’s contributions to the public good and rates them based on factors including social mobility, research, and opportunities for public service. 

The rankings include more than 1,400 public and private colleges, and while it’s less customizable than competitors, it does provide a unique ranking of schools you’re not likely to find elsewhere. You can also review schools grouped in different categories, such as “best bang for the buck colleges” and “best colleges for adult learners.”

7. Edmit's own college search tool

Here at Edmit, we aggregate data from many of the above sources, in addition to the personalized data you provide on your profile and financial aid award letter, to help you get actionable insights on your college investment. Our goal is to make all aspects of college pricing and value more transparent for everyone.

Build your profile, upload your financial aid award letters (if you have them), and get started. We’ll compare your offers, make price recommendations, and connect you with financial aid experts who are ready to work with you.

But back to the original question: How do I know if a college is right for me? With initial research on both quantitative and qualitative data, a willingness to negotiate, and a consumer-driven approach, you’ll be well on your way to making an informed decision on where to go to college.