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As the school year winds down and summer starts, incoming seniors around the country are beginning to ramp up their college search. With over 2,500 four-year institutions of higher learning to choose from just in America, where does this search begin?

A lot of people begin their search with their state universities and nearby private schools. However, based on my experience with classmates conducting their college search, that’s as far as it gets. They never do further research to branch out and consider other potential schools to apply to. In order to create a college list that truly reflects your potential, the most important thing for your college search is to utilize your connections and your resources.

Family, neighbors, alumni from your high school, and friends are only some of the connections that you can use to begin your college search. If you have siblings who are older than you, you’ll already have a jumping off point with where to apply. You can talk to your siblings and ask about their college experience. Based on their answers, you can figure out if the type of college they attended is something you’re interested in.

Talking to your neighbors exposes you to different people that you probably don’t have as much contact with. Asking where they went to college can expose you to different colleges you may not have considered. In addition, if you ask your family, they might have preconceived notions of what you would like, which might not always be correct.

High school alumni are also a great resource, since they’ve been through the application process. Seeing where they’re going can also give you a jumping off point for starting this search. For my high school, the names of the colleges that the graduating seniors are attending are published in a newsletter. If this is available, it could also be a good tool to see where people at your school have been accepted.

Also, check out your school’s guidance counselor. One of the main aspects of their job is to help high school seniors find and apply to the colleges of their choice. Guidance counselors are very familiar with the schools that past high school alumni matriculated to and they can recommend colleges you may not have considered initially. Not only can they help you find schools that could be a match for you, they can contact college admissions officers on your behalf  to give you more information and help you navigate the college admissions process.

Finally, if you and your friends are open and willing to share this information, comparing college lists can help introduce you to different types of colleges that you hadn’t considered. I know that I was able to help some classmates in this regard. After talking to my peers, some people began adding liberal arts colleges to their lists, since they had not considered applying to (or ever heard of) a liberal arts college before.

In addition, you should use the resources available to you to begin your college search. These include guidebooks, college rankings, and college search websites. Since Morgan Casper wrote an awesome article on college guides to help start your college search, I won’t go into detail about them.

College rankings are a great way to look at schools that you may not have heard of. However, if you want to use this as a resource, you need to look beyond the top 10 or top 20 schools. Go through to at least number 50, in order to expose yourself to as many schools as possible. Rankings like US News’ Best Colleges list are very subjective, so make sure you take them with a grain of salt. Although they are a good way to get a good idea of schools you’re interested in, don’t let the rankings be the be-all and end-all.

Another awesome resource are college search websites. The one that immediately comes to mind is College Board’s BigFuture. On BigFuture, you have the ability to research schools based on various factors, including your major, your preferred school size, and many other things. Although there are probably other websites similar to BigFuture, BigFuture is probably the most comprehensive college search website, since it is produced by College Board.

Now that you’re ready to begin your college search, I have a few things for you all to remember:

1. Don’t let the price tag scare you.

If you’re a low income student, looking at the tuition may scare you from applying to certain schools. However, it’s important to research the financial aid policies of the schools as well. Some schools are able to meet 100% of your demonstrated need, which means that for some people, attending an “expensive” private school may be cheaper than attending a public state university. In addition, some schools are also very generous, so that they remain a viable college option financially for those who are not low income.

2. Don’t limit yourself based on name recognition.

Some people are so focused on name-brand schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, that they fail to research other schools. I’ve known people who were like this. When they ended up with no acceptances, they had to go to the local community college (not that there’s anything wrong with that, either!). There are plenty of amazing schools that may not have the same name recognition, but they might give you a better college experience than Harvard or Yale. Although there’s nothing wrong with applying to name-brand schools, make sure you’re not applying just because of the name. Prestige does not mean a certain school will be a good fit for you.

With all of these things in mind, good luck college searching. May the odds be ever in your favor!

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the author

Benjamin Din is a student at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, where he is studying journalism and the mathematical methods in the social sciences (what does that even mean?). When he's not writing for The Prospect, he can be found on Twitter as he tries to build his social media presence. For more information, check out his website.

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