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College Career Center » Researching Colleges + Building Your List

Researching Colleges + Building Your List

The College Search Process


It is important that you take time to reflect on the things you want in a college that will support you, challenge you, have the academic areas of study that interest you and more. Selecting a college is very personal; it begins with self-reflection.  Genuinely ask “Why do I want to go to college?” Starting this process without a solid answer to that question is a missed opportunity! Consider goals, strengths, areas for growth, and reasons for going to college. Be realistic. It is okay to dream, but keep one foot on the ground!


Keep in mind that criteria for what type of college will meet your needs best, may look very different from that of friends & classmates. The goal of this process is to discover a range of institutions where you will feel happy, fulfilled, intellectually challenged & supported… and falls within the budget!


As a goal, begin to attend some college visits here at PVHS in the fall of your sophomore year. Take the opportunity to learn about colleges you might not have ever heard of… keep an open mind!  During your junior year you can take control and take a deeper dive into researching colleges that fit your needs AND budget so you can ultimately develop a strong college application list by the end of summer before beginning your senior year.


Once you narrow down WHICH colleges you want to apply to, it becomes a lot more manageable to organize college application dates and deadlines. Even though it seems like you should apply to MORE and MORE reach/dream universities, remember, at that end of the day you want to have as many options to choose from as possible. Continue asking yourself: “Why THIS college” before generating a list of colleges representative of your criteria and that reflects a necessary balance of college admissions selectivity: Dream, Reach, Target & Likely>   A reasonable number of schools might include 1-2 Dream colleges, 2-3 Reach institutions, 5-6 Target colleges that are a good fit/match and 2-3 Likely schools. Each of the institutions must feel like a place you can be happy to attend and call home! Each of the institutions must account for your family financial situation – have the conversation now!


Applying to a balanced list of anywhere from 8 – 12 colleges can be the right sweet spot as long as you have some great target and likely colleges you’d love to attend and can afford to attend on your list, and not all of the most highly selective (rejective) brand name institutions with single digit admit rates.   


What does your dream school have? Think about components of a campus that are important to you and will allow you to thrive within that environment. Once you have your list of interests / values / wants /needs, you'll be able to use the search tools below to help you find colleges that have the various components on your list. 


  • Academics: What type of learning suits you best? Small-discussion based, interdisciplinary, etc. What type of academic environment do you want; academically challenging and/or competitive? Are you that kind of student?  What type of academic support(s) do you need (math center, tutoring labs, support services for learning disabilities, wellness center,etc.)
  • Social: Think about the types of activities your future friends and you will be doing on campus (growing your own sustainable farm for local food, going to football games, checking out art museums or local bands). How BIG or SMALL is the campus? Greek life or not?
  • Extras: Again, start with dreaming. What type of ethos does your college have? Ethos is the heart, mission and drive of a college campus. So what would your ethos have? Sustainability, community impact, research and higher thinking, challenging academic boundaries, social justice, LGBTQ+ communities, club sports, etc. Is there a service component to satisfy before graduation?
  • Environment: What do your actual surroundings look like? Are you in the heart of a big city, do you want to have access to a city, but prefer a more suburban area. Are you at a smaller campus in the Pacific Northwest nestled in a quieter town or somewhere in the Southwest or South with four seasons, but also climates known for heat/humidity and potential for disruptive weather occurrences like tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding?

More factors for students to consider before building your list…

  • Is there a special area of study I’m particularly interested in, or do I want to pursue more general studies?
  • What career(s) am I considering? Do I need career counseling and access to advisors? How easy to change majors?
  • Am I interested in a diverse student body? What kinds of diversity are most important to me?
  • Do I want a demanding academic environment? Do I plan to go to graduate school?
  • Am I comfortable with a curriculum that offers a great deal of independent study?
  • Do I prefer on- or off-campus housing? Am I interested in fraternities or sororities?
  • How important are intramural or intercollegiate athletics?
  • How important is school spirit to me? Do I want a “rah-rah” or a more chill environment?


Resources to help your search: Good college lists are made by gathering good information!


Schoolinks: Schoolinks is our College Career Readiness platform that stays with you throughout high school. You'll need to update your colleges I'm thinking about list and ultimately your colleges I'm applying to list. Your counselor and the College Career Center will work with you in and communicate via Schoolinks. Use the search features to plug in things you want and it will suggest colleges based on your preferences. Don’t forget to use Schoolinks to register to attend college visits and other presentations in the CCC!


College Navigator College Navigator is a national website that contains a database of colleges along with extensive information on those schools including: whether the college is public or private, 2-year or 4-year, for-profit or non-profit, the net cost of attendance (Net Cost = Cost minus typically available scholarships and grants), accreditation, tuition, graduation rates, cohort default rates, location, student body, and more.

College Scorecard College Scorecard is run by the Department of Education. It contains a database of colleges that can be easily searched. It is more visual than College Navigator, but does not include cohort default rates, and some of the information available on college navigator. The website does include average annual cost of each institution, graduation rates, salary after attending, average student debt, typical monthly loan payment.

O*Net Online O*Net is a great place to research the career in which you are interested. The website includes information different career paths, the education required, and the average wages for each career / occupation listed.

California College Pathways California College Pathways contains a wealth of information for foster youth. The website has information on nearly everything: college prep, selecting the right college, information on Guardian Scholars and Renaissance Scholars programs, financial aid, campus supports, housing, and many other resources.


College Express The reason why College Express is such a wonderful college exploration tool is because of their lists. College Express has lists grouped by interest, learning styles, academic and social experience and so much more. Here are a few examples of some of the lists you could explore: Colleges for students needing a second chance. 10 colleges that get Greek life right. Colleges for the artist who doesn’t want to go to art school. 10 cool colleges for entrepreneurs. 


CampusReel   Real Experiences...Real Students! CampusReel brings colleges, universities, graduate programs and schools to life with student-led video content. Spend a Day in the Life with current students while exploring the culture and community on a whole new level. Get an unfiltered look into the day-to-day life, culture, and dynamics of campuses across the nation, helping you find the best fit for your educational journey.


Unigo: Think of this as a “yelp” for college. Just like Yelp, colleges are reviewed on a first-hand experience from the students who have attended or are attending the institution. So while all colleges may seem to sound the same (i.e. clubs, Greek life, access to professors, sports teams, research and study abroad opportunities, etc.) Unigo lets students explore the “vibe” of a campus, the stereotypes, food and dorm ratings, campus facilities, reviews of nearby shops, extracurricular activities, off-campus housing and more. Dive a little deeper and hear from students. As with Yelp, I caution students to read multiple reviews to get a bigger picture.


Google Maps This one might seem out of place, but I promise it’s a powerful tool. It can be hard to have faith that a college is a good “fit” for you when have never visited the campus. Google maps has the amazing ability to help create a vision of not just the campus, but its surroundings. Put the university in the search engine and zoom out a little. What do you see? Museums? Mountains? Access to a metro station that takes you into town? Where is the closest airport? What is the population of the town around campus? What does the closest town have? Google maps can help paint a bigger picture, use it and explore!


YouVisit Take a virtual tour of campus and hear from a recorded tour guide. Take a tour of the science facilities, learn more specific facts about a brand new gym and just explore a little more. It can be tough to decide where to take a college tour and you may not get to travel all over, but this is a free accessible resource as your fingertips.


The College Tour Each episode of the award-winning TV series, The College Tour, shares the story of a single college or university through the authentic lens of its current students. Learn from real students about their real experiences on campus, as we offer viewers an insider’s perspective on college life and college culture. This TV Series is a comprehensive guide to aid your college research, helping you answer the ultimate question: ‘What college is best for me?’


Western Undergraduate Exchange Search for affordable out-of-state options! Many families still believe that if the college is not in California it will be far more expensive than in-state, and will automatically take an out-of-state school off the table purely because of perceived cost. The initial “sticker price” of tuition can be shocking, especially for some out of state institutions. Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE – pronounced WOO EEE) offers a list of public colleges in various Western states that offer a reduced tuition rate to qualifying neighboring states like for our students here in California. Check it out! 


Visit a selection of college campuses! Small, large, research based, liberal arts, art institute, in a city and in a suburban or rural area…  What does it feel like? Visit a few campuses right here in California within an hour or two from PV to find out! Find a few different campuses to explore (private, public, large, small, religious, institute, etc.) to learn more about what they offer and how they FEEL to you. Even if you plan on going out of state, the value of touring a college and looking closer at programs is immeasurable.


Building a Balanced College List


To begin with the college search process you must first take time to think about and understand your needs, wants, what you value and what you hope for in a college to have an idea of what types of colleges you'll eventually apply to.  


From there, you'll begin to gauge your chances of admission, or rather, if a college is a reach, target, or likely school for you to potentially gain admission. Keep in mind, just because a college is in the Ivy League or a "name brand" university does not guarantee you'll have a phenomenal experience that will automatically propel you into success and stardom!!  Finding the right college fit, the right program, and the right environment, will help you understand which college will give you the best return on investment, and set you up for success! 


GPA / Rigor


Colleges will review your application within the context of Palos Verdes High School, your high school curriculum and what you did or did not have access to. They'll review your rigor (advanced courses, Honors, AP, Community College, Dual Enrollment, etc.) to better understand how you've challenged yourself over time since freshman year. They'll review grade trends, and also look at your GPA. 


Estimating chances of admission


How do you know if you’ll get accepted to the college of your dreams? Or how about college in general? Rather than applying to college literally praying to the Gods that you’ll get accepted, take control in understanding how admission decisions are made and what data you can collect to have a strong idea of your odds of admission.


Let’s take a look at the factors and tools that will help you understand your chances of admission and help you build a balanced college list.


How colleges review your GPA and test scores


It’s important to understand that colleges review your application within the context of your high school and what you did and did not have access to. Every high school has varying curricula, Ex., AP courses, IB, honors, no AP coursework at all, and different grading systems and courses offered. Because of this, admission counselors get to know their territories and understand the makeup of each high school. They get a sense of how students do academically within that given environment and that a 4.0 GPA at Desert High School is not automatically comparable to Ocean High School!


They’re looking to get a sense of where you are academically in comparison to your peers, and also how past applicants from our high school fared in the admission process. This isn’t to say that you’ll text all your friends and ask how Mary got into Berkeley, but it can be helpful to know if you’re in the top 30% of your high school, for example or the top 3%. Speak with your counselor to gain some insight rather than guess.


Here are some ways you can also gain some context:


Review our high school profile. Here’s our profile. We provide a grade distribution, we list the courses so a college can see if a student took the highest math offered or if they doubled up on foreign languages, and how our AP scores or SAT/ACT score averages trend.


In keeping the theme with GPAs and academic trends, you’ll also want to look directly on the college’s website for average academic profiles of past admitted applicants. There are a lot of blogs that compile data BUT keep in mind going directly to the source when it comes to the most up-to-date information is best, so yes, if you like it, read the blog, BUT in addition go to the college’s website, talk to an admission counselor and gather information directly from the source. Attend college visits in the CCC where you can speak directly with the admission counselor who will probably read your application!


Go to the college’s website you’re interested in and search admitted student profiles (or simply google "admitted student profile _____ University Class of ___). Admitted student profiles generally share test scores (if considered), admit rates, and oftentimes GPAs so you can better understand the ranges and assess how academically competitive might be in your admission cycle.


HINT: If a college is test optional, you can see if your SAT or ACT score is within or above the ranges to make a judgement call and send your score or not! Also, not all colleges require tests!


At this point, you’ll want to keep track of this info so you can compare and review it as you keep going. Really an excel spreadsheet, a word doc, or even good old fashioned pen and paper is fine. Just make some columns and have a few categories like this will do…



High School Academic Stats

College Academic Stats

Acceptance Rate

Why I like the school










Or you can create a Checklist with a more elaborate spreadsheet or method of your choice!


Institutional priorities


Now’s the part where you learn fancy college terms…ready? 


Institutional priorities are the internal powers that be. What does that mean? Every college has their own internal priorities that you may never hear about and are essentially unpredictable from year to year… institutional priorities drive admissions decisions. For instance, if an alumni donated to the music department and there’s now an initiative to increase the program, so one year you hear more students getting in to the music program. Or if there’s an initiative to increase a particular gender of the student population, or to cut back on funding for a certain program.


This kind of thing can drive you crazy because it cannot be predicted as it can change year to year. College admission decisions in a holistic admission review process are rarely predictable, which is why we go to great lengths to discuss a balanced college list that you’ve researched extensively and have at least 1 or 2 colleges that you’re likely to be admitted AND would actually attend!


In a holistic admission review process, admission counselors review a number of items as a part of their admission process such as academics, rigor, letters of rec, essays, testing, activities, etc. Each piece may or may not hold the same weight but ALL parts are considered. Test scores are NOT considered for any student at Test-blind or Test-free institutions like the UC’s, Cal States, Caltech , etc. Test scores are considered at Test-optional institutions if you choose to send them. If you do not choose to send test scores to a test-optional college, you will not be penalized, however more weight will be placed on all the other pieces of your application. Speak to your counselor or the PVHSCCC if you have questions about submitting or not submitting test scores or testing or choosing not to test at all. 


The best thing you can do about institutional priorities is try not to predict them. If your neighbor said they volunteered at this shelter that the college loved, don’t assume you should volunteer at the same shelter. The next best thing you can do is get to know your regional admission counselor. Every college has one and their job is to help inform prospective students and is often one of the readers of your college application. Get to know them, they can advocate for you, and help give you inside information they can share, like how to strengthen your application, like snagging that alumni interview, etc.


Demonstrated interest


This leads us to demonstrated interest. Another fancy term that colleges use to gauge your interest in actually attending their university. It is important to note that NOT ALL colleges care about or track students “demonstrating interest”, so check with your admission counselor or the college website. It’s not the end all be all, but it can be incredibly helpful for both parties involved. It’s a win/win, when you get to know the university, visit campus (virtually or in person), attend an admission presentation, fill out an interest form online, etc. You get to hear more about the university to learn if it’s a good fit for you AND the admission counselor sees that you’re actually interested, which can help them feel more confident in admitting you. Think about throwing a party and no one showing up… They can track your interest and feel confident about their invite for you to join their campus community!  Here is a great video from Grown & Flown with “17 Ways to Demonstrate Interest!”


When to apply – Early Action, Early Decision 1 &2, Restrictive Early Action, Regular Decision??


As you near fall of your senior year, you will have a solidified college list (hopefully!). This is where your excel sheet adds more columns and you take a look at decision dates and deadlines and application admission plans.


When you actually apply is all about when you can present the strongest application. If there is an early admission plan (deadlines typically due November 1 or 15 of senior year) and you have essays completed, letters of recommendation requested, and feel confident about your grades, then applying via an early plan will most usually be in your best interest.


If you’re a late bloomer, or had something outside of your control that affected grades, and you really want to show off your first semester senior grades, you might consider applying regular decision, giving yourself time to present a stronger application.


Note: There are binding decision plans such as Early Decision 1 & 2 where you may only apply to ONE university Early Decision and if admitted you must withdraw all other applications and attend that university. There are pros and cons to this type of plan and the decision to apply to an institution Early Decision will vary on the student and university. This is a major decision that should be discussed thoroughly with parents/guardians… Also, check with your counselor and the PVHSCCC to discuss if it’s a good fit for you, and always check financial aid and estimate college costs, as decisions will come out prior to receiving any financial aid package. If you need to consider and compare financial aid packages with various colleges to which you’re admitted, applying Early Decision is not for you!


LASTLY, GPA might deter you from even getting to know a college. Just because it’s a selective institution does not mean you’ll LOVE your experience there! On the flip side, applying to colleges where you’ll likely be admitted, but you more than likely won’t attend, doesn’t leave you with options!


BTW, there are thousands of four year colleges and universities across the United States, not including wonderful international universities. A majority of those international institutions have high acceptance rates. There are plenty of options, so do yourself a favor when you begin your college search and don’t limit yourself!  As you get to know what you want, you can narrow down schools and ultimately ensure you have a list of colleges, nicely balanced, and all with the things you are hoping for.







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