The hunt for your dream college can be rough, I’ll give you that. But, it doesn’t have to be. I believe that everyone should be able to go to the college of their dreams or at least one very close to it. People say that the 4 years you spend in college are the pinnacle of your adolescence. They should never be wasted on a college you feel just so-so about!
Dartmouth College took me completely by surprise when I discovered it was my actual dream college. I had originally set my eyes on Stanford University (for about 4 years actually). But, after a visit on a west coast college tour, I realized I only had lukewarm feelings toward it.
However, Dartmouth swept me off my feet the moment I drove into the campus. Dartmouth met every vision that I had of my dream college. I’m sure I wouldn’t have landed on this treasure if not for these 5 steps.
If you’re knee-deep in the dream college search, or just starting, follow the tips below and you’ll narrow down your choices by far.
How to Find Your Dream College
1. START WITH A CLEAN SLATE
I had been enamored with the idea of Stanford University since I was 12 and my mom took me there while she was on a business trip. My expectations and imagination ran wild for 4 years, and when I returned at 16, I was disappointed by the reality.
If you’re hanging on to any college for whatever reason (parents are alumni, you saw it in a TV show once, etc) you’re going to have to get comfortable with the idea that it might end up not being the best fit. Make sure you haven’t fallen in love with the idea of a college.
Instead, you should keep a completely open mind. Don’t start your college search leaning one way or another just yet. You’ll need to ask yourself some questions first, which brings me to my next point.
2. SET YOUR STANDARDS
In order to weed out your dream college from the thousands you have to choose from, you should already have an idea of what you want by the time you start your heavy searching. Jot down what you see yourself doing in college, what it looks like, etc. Basically everything you imagine college being.
You need to set up the standards of your ideal college. You must do this in order to ensure that you’re finding the college that fits YOU, and not trying to fit yourself into a college that isn’t for you.
Can you answer these questions?
WHAT TYPE OF ACADEMIC PLAN?
It can be hard to pick an academic plan when you’ve never actually been to college before. You can divide up colleges and their academic curricula into two main categories: Liberal Arts colleges and Universities.
Liberal Arts colleges value the arts, humanities, and the sciences. They emphasize having a well-rounded education that requires a wider breadth of knowledge.
Universities are much larger schools that usually focus more on research. You are typically fixed in the major you choose and won’t need to branch out to other topics if you don’t want to.
DO THEY TREAT YOUR MAJOR WELL?
Some schools will teach your major differently or better than others. With my major, Cognitive Science, one college had a more technological approach to it and another took a scientific approach. I wanted the scientific approach. These nuances are important to take note of.
Some schools also teach certain majors better than others. I wouldn’t recommend going to a school that hardly pays attention to their Psychology department if you’re trying to major in that exact subject.
If you are undecided, narrow your major choices to at least 2-3 and research the top ranking colleges in those majors. You can even dig a little deeper into the colleges by looking at where graduates who studied your major are now.
WHAT TYPE OF CAMPUS SETTING?
There are three types of colleges: Rural, Suburban, and Urban. Each have their pros and cons and you want to choose carefully. Check out College Board’s page on the characteristics of each campus.
WHAT TYPE OF CAMPUS VIBE?
Do you love partying or are you a tad more reserved? Maybe you’re a monogram junky, and a preppy school would be good for you. Or maybe you’re a hipster and want to go to a school that really values social activism and staying #woke. Whatever the case, find the campus vibe that appeals most to your personality. College is for finding your people, your tribe, you know? You can’t do that if it’s difficult to relate to 90% of the student body!
You can include lots of other criteria in your college search, too. Maybe you plan on playing varsity sports and want a D1 level school. Proximity to home is another good one. I made sure I moved far away from the South!
How to Find the Colleges:
After you’ve set your standards, it’s time to find the colleges that meet them. Start with the broadest standard. This would be the academic plan or campus setting. The easiest thing to do is search rankings. If you’ve chosen the Liberal Arts curriculum, search “Liberal Arts college rankings” in Google.
Cut your coat according to your size and choose the colleges your high school performance best meets.
Then, narrow your search down further. Once you’ve chosen around 20 colleges, start checking out where each college is, where they rank in your particular area(s) of studies, and so on until you’ve whittled down your choice of colleges to the cream of the crop.
3. CREATE A HIERARCHY
After you’ve set your standards and found maybe 5 to 10 colleges that meet a majority, if not all of them, you need to create a hierarchy. Categorize the colleges by how close they meet your criteria. I also ended up ranking my colleges by difficulty to get into. I had 2 that I really wanted to go to, but were also the highest tier as far as acceptance rates. Then I picked 2 to 3 mid-level colleges that I had more than a 60% chance of getting into, and I was fine with them as well. Then I chose another 2 “fallback plan” colleges that met a majority of my criteria, my admittance was almost guaranteed, but wasn’t completely in love with.
The top 3 or 4 in your hierarchy should be the ones you focus on the most. These are colleges that you’d be totally okay with getting accepted to and are excited about.
4. TAKE A COLLEGE TOUR
If you can budget for college tours, absolutely take them. I literally cannot stress this enough. I recommend visiting your top 3 colleges.
Every college sounds great on paper, but until you see it physically, you will never truly get an authentic feel for them.
Dartmouth was in the top 5 of my hierarchy, but it wasn’t my number 1 at first. It wasn’t until I actually visited the campus that it became my dream college. If you can’t visit, take the virtual tour online and do the most thorough research that you can. One of my favorite things to do was look up college vlogs on Youtube for each college on my list to get a closer look inside. (These searches will also help you get more of a feel for campus vibe and setting.)
5. RESEARCH, ADJUST, GET EXCITED
Depending on the dream college you’ve decided on, you may need to start kicking your ass into gear. Research more in-depth acceptance rates of your college.
If there’s a median ACT/SAT score or GPA of accepted students, you want to make sure you can get there or above that level by the time you start applying for colleges.
If the odds truly seem against you for that college, pick the next best thing and focus on that. But, still apply to the top one, you never know!
Now that you’ve found your college, it’s time to get excited and get passionate. I realize that it’s scary to get your hopes up about a college, especially if it has a really low acceptance rate.
However, your chances of getting in increase 100% (in my opinion, at least) when you show full-on passion for the college you’re applying to. Admissions boards can see right through an application and tell whether you’re actually excited about their college or are applying “just because”.
A little advice: You know that saying “reach for the stars and you’ll end up among the clouds”? That’s the exact mindset you should have here. Shoot freaking high, you never know where you’ll land. Dartmouth was my first choice and also the one on my list that was hardest to get into. I did my best and succeeded. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, don’t miss out on opportunities because of self-doubt or fear of failure. You can do this!
Hey, you! Want more college advice and resources? Check out my most helpful posts here:
What They Don’t Tell You to Bring to College
Top 5 Places to Buy Your Dorm Decor
What to Do the Summer Before Freshman Year