How do you choose a college that’s right for you? What a daunting question!

The good news: there are more than 4,500 colleges and universities in the US. Even better news: most schools accept most students, with the national average at 65.8% in 2014 (source). But which of the 4,500 should you apply to?

High school counselors can be a wonderful support during the college application process and many have knowledge of specialized programs and schools that can help you in choosing the best college. There are also many private counselors who can help you develop a list. But if you have yet to schedule a meeting with your high school counselor (get on that!) and you can’t afford a private counselor, this article will show you how to develop a great college list online. For free.

So what are all the factors you should keep in mind when researching and choosing a list of colleges to apply to?

Here are the steps for choosing a college:

  • Get to know your interests and preferences

  • Discover what specific qualities you want in a college

  • Create an initial list of colleges that match this criteria

  • Research your chances of getting in to each of these colleges and organize your school list by “reach,” “maybe,” and “likely.”

  • Narrow down your results into your final list of colleges

  • Apply away!

Now that you’ve got the basic idea, let’s begin.

WHat qualities am I looking for in a college?

When I asked Steven Antonoff, who literally wrote the book on finding colleges, for the best way for students to spend one hour discovering their college preference, he advised going somewhere quiet, like the top of a mountain, and really thinking about two things: who are you and what do you want? That could work, if you have a mountain nearby.

But if you don’t happen to have a mountain nearby, I recommend the 80-question “Self-Survey for the College Bound” in Steven’s book, The College Match. And he’s not paying me to say that. But if you’re unable to buy the book (or just too lazy) and just want the worksheet? Get this: he gives it away on his website.

download the Self-Survey worksheet
for the College Bound

And if you want to learn more about yourself, use these:

These aren’t meant to be exhaustive, says Dr. Antonoff, but instead meant to start a conversation. Complete these exercises over the course of an afternoon and you’ll have begun that conversation.

What are some other ways to get to know your interests and preferences?

Another way is to start with the key characteristics that might differentiate colleges from each other. For this, I love Corsava. It’s a free tool that you can use to sort and rate your preferences in a way that will help you figure out what you want (and don’t want) from your college experience.

Dr. Antonoff and I both like Do What You Are and I’m a big fan of YouScience. I also recommend the “Sizing Yourself Up” section at the start of the Fiske Guide to Colleges (more on that in a moment) and on the podcast, Dr. Antonoff mentions a half-dozen other great self-exploration tools, including Knowdell’s card sort, the True Colors survey, and O*NET online, all of which you’ll find links to on the show notes page.

Once you’ve spent some time thinking about your interests and preferences, it’s time to start thinking about…

Where do I start finding the right colleges?

Once you’ve done a bit of self-discovery with the above exercises, I highly recommend that you use  to search according to your interests.

Why College Express? Because after 30 years spent eating, sleeping and breathing colleges, Steven Antonoff published his amazing set of lists in his book The College Finder, but they are available (and searchable!) . So you can type in anything from “Schools for the Free Spirit” to “Great Private Colleges for the B Student” and you’ll get results.

Another thing I love is that Steven doesn’t rank schools, which is pretty tough to do anyway.

Wait, shouldn’t I just be trying to get in the most prestigious and highly-ranked school?

Nope. In fact, choosing which schools you apply to and attend based on prestige and ranking alone can be a pretty bad idea. Why?

The most popular rankings like US News & World Report rank colleges based on a very specific set of factors, and very few of those factors actually impact you as a student and the kind of experience you will have in college. Also, by applying to colleges using only the US News and World Report, you are basically trusting that you value the exact same set of qualities that are used in that ranking.

Fun fact: In 2011, 20% of a school’s ranking was based on graduation and Freshman retention rates.

Here’s a confession: I have yet to meet a single student who has said that freshman graduation and retention rates are an important factor in their college selection process.

If you’re interested in reading more, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of the US News & World Report rankings here: The Order of Things: What college rankings really tell us.

Finally, there is a big misconception that the college you go to will have a big impact on your career opportunities. While that might be true in the past or in other countries, that just isn’t true for 99% of career paths in the US.

Even top companies like Google no longer focus on the prestige of your degree, and they now focus more on your knowledge in the field, applied skills you’ve developed, and relevant internship experience.

But unfortunately, that fact hasn’t caught up with the general public and many people believe prestige matters more than it might.

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So how do I figure out which schools to apply to?

Good question. After completing the self-discovery exercises above, you’re ready to start your research.

How do I choose the right college?

1. First, download and make a copy of my Ultimate College List Research Tracker.

Trust me. It’ll help you stay organized.