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College research can be an overwhelming task, and it's not easy to know where to begin. In this article, I'll help you sort through your options and find your dream college.

If you work through the following four steps, you'll be well on your way to compiling a list of schools that fulfill all your most important criteria:

  • Identify your priorities
  • Search with an online college finder
  • Consider your chances of admission
  • Finalize your list

In the next few sections, we'll cover how to research colleges in a straightforward and effective way.

Step 1: Identify Your Priorities and Preferences

The first step in tackling the college search process involves thinking about what you want out of your college experience. There are some essential qualities that differentiate colleges from one another that you should consider first, such as location, size, cost, and academic programs. You should also contemplate what you want out of the social scene and academic climate at your college. Then, you can search for schools that fit your needs across a variety of different dimensions.

Primary Factors

Here's a list of the first four factors you should consider when searching for colleges:

#1: Location

Do you want to be far away or close to home? Attending an in-state school can mean a lower tuition price, but it may stunt your college experience if you continue to rely on your family and old friends. You should also consider whether you're interested in a rural, urban, or small town college environment. The surrounding area can have a big impact on your happiness and comfort level.

Large and small colleges often have very different vibes. You're more likely to get personalized attention at small colleges , but they might have fewer resources and less diversity amongst students. You should research each college individually, but there are certain characteristics shared by most large or small colleges that might lead you to prefer one type over the other.

#3: Academics

You're going to college primarily to learn stuff, so academics should be up there on your priority list. Just how serious of an academic environment are you looking for? Do you want a school that focuses on undergraduate teaching or research? What types of programs interest you? If you have any ideas about your potential major, keep that in mind as you search for schools so you can apply to places that offer the best programs for you.

Selectivity and reputation also come into play here. Based on your test scores and GPA, you can predict your admissions chances at different schools (more about this later). It's advantageous for you to attend the most competitive school possible based on your stats. This will provide you with the greatest number of opportunities both in college and in your post-graduate endeavors.

Tuition prices are something you should think about in your college search, but don't let a high price prevent you from applying if you really love a school. Right now, you should just work on determining whether cost is an issue for you. If so, focus your search on schools that offer generous financial aid and merit scholarships . You can also investigate colleges with no application fees.


Secondary Factors

This list goes into some other factors to think about in your college search that are less fundamental but can still have a really strong influence on your experience.

#1: Social Scene

This is a vague term, but you should have some idea of what type of social environment you're looking for in college. Do you want to be at a party school? Or are you more of a library-all-day-every-day type? Are you at all interested in Greek life? Do you want to be able to go out to bars and clubs? Make sure the environment at the school you choose will be a fun place for you to spend four years.

#2: Housing

Is it important to you to have a really nice dorm? Do you want to be able to live off campus at some point? Schools may offer more or less variety in housing, so this is definitely worth considering. Universities located in rural areas may have fewer options for living off campus.

Are you looking for a school with lots of dining options? This is important to consider especially if you have special dietary preferences or requirements. Whatever accommodations you need, make sure the schools you choose have the ability to provide them.

#4: Extracurriculars

Think of any extracurricular activities you want to pursue in college. If these are priorities for you, you should ensure that any schools that you're considering have the appropriate resources. Extracurriculars are a huge part of the college experience for most students, and they provide a great social outlet outside of the party scene and classes.

#5: Athletics

If you're hoping to play a sport in college for fun, you should make sure that anywhere you apply will give you that opportunity. Are you planning to work out in college? If this is a priority for you, look for schools that have high-quality athletic facilities and give students full gym access. Many schools offer exercise classes for students at their gyms, which is a really nice perk.


As you consider these factors, you can continue to customize the priority order to fit your needs. Some of the factors I listed as "secondary" might actually be of primary concern to you. If you feel that something is a priority, don't discount it just because other things are "supposed" to be more important. You may even be totally indifferent to some of the factors I've listed (for example, "athletics" are a foreign concept to us hardcore nerds). That's fine too! You can choose to ignore these factors in the next step.

Now that you're armed with your preferences and priorities, it's time to start your college search for realz.

Step 2: Search for Schools Using an Online College Finder

After you've figured out your preferences, the easiest way to find schools that you like is to use an online college finder tool to search based on your criteria.

One option that you might consider initially is College Navigator . You can specify location, size, major program, public or private, tuition, test scores, and more in your search. This tool will give you all the statistics on different schools and help you locate options that seem like the right fit. As you investigate the results of your search, add schools to your "favorites" and compare them side by side to see how they differ. This might eliminate some options based on factors like cost and admissions rate.


Another site to investigate is Cappex . Cappex is a college matchmaking site where you can fill out a profile and get matched up with schools that align with your preferences. The site provides suggestions for schools that you might like after you complete your profile. It has a pretty complete overview of each school including student reviews and information about campus life that might not be included in the College Navigator statistics.

If you find schools that you like, you can add them to your running list and compare them against each other. Cappex also links directly to the application pages for schools on your list of favorites, so you can check out what materials you're expected to submit.


There are also a number of other sites you can use at this stage. The link at the beginning of this section will take you to my reviews of the ten best college search websites. Feel free to use whichever one seems most accessible to you!

Step 3: Consider Admissions Chances and Reputation

Once you've figured out what you want from a college and have gotten some solid suggestions from search sites, you should step back and take an objective look at your results. It's important to maintain realistic expectations in the college application process, so you should choose schools where you have reasonable chances of admission.

Though the sites I mentioned above may give you statistics for a school's average test scores and GPA, it's difficult to understand your chances of admission just by looking at statistics. I would recommend that you Google "(name of school) PrepScholar admissions requirements" to access our database pages about each school. Use the tools on these pages to enter in your GPA and SAT scores and calculate your chances of admission.

In general, if your chances are below 30 percent the school qualifies as a reach school . A school with an admissions rate that's below 15 percent is a reach school for all students regardless of scores and GPA. If all or most of the schools you're interested in are reach schools, it's time to adjust some of your criteria to allow for other options. Only a third of the colleges where you apply should be reaches.

This is also a good time to check ranking lists like US News and Forbes to see whether the colleges that interest you have decent reputations. However, be careful when considering these rankings! If two schools are within ten or so ranks of each other, there probably isn't much of a difference in quality between them.

Rankings are a tool to be used after you've already picked out schools based on other factors. If you're trying to decide between two schools and the lower ranked school is a much better fit for you, then you should still apply to that one. Rankings are more of a tie-breaker to be used when all other measurements are equal. Prestige can be important because it generally means a more intellectual student community and greater academic opportunities, but you should put your personal goals and priorities above the prestige of the school.

After consulting these resources, you'll end up with a better sense of the quality of your preliminary list of schools. This leads to the next step, making your final college list!


Step 4: Make a Final List

Now that you've gathered all of this information, it's time to tweak your list of schools so that it has a nice balance of different options. As I mentioned in the previous section, it's important to have reach schools, but they should only make up about a third of your list. Another third of the schools should be likely options, and the last third should be safety schools .

You can use the same process as above to look up potential likely and safety schools and check your admissions chances. Safety schools are schools where you have at least an 80 percent chance of admission. Likely schools are schools where you have a 30 to 80 percent chance of admission. These can be further divided into "possible" and "probable" options. Possible options will be in the 30-50 percent range, and probable options are between 50 and 80%.

Most students end up applying to around 5-8 colleges in total. Start out with three schools in the reach category, three in the likely category (two probable and one possible), and three in the safety category. Then, if you find that you're overwhelmed by the application fees or the supplementary essays, you can always cut out 2-3 schools. Be honest about whether you can realistically see yourself attending all of the schools on your list.

You should also do some research to check whether the schools on your list use the Common Application or if they require you to fill out separate applications. This can have a big impact on the time you spend on the process. You might decide to eliminate a school from your list if you're not super attached to it and it's the only option that requires an individual application.

Once you've balanced your list, begin brainstorming your application essays and deciding which accomplishments and activities you want to highlight for colleges. Read this article about how to create a versatile application for some more tips!


What's Next?

Now that you know how to do research colleges, you should also be able to put it into practice. Learn more about the application deadlines that will be most critical for you.

College ranking lists can be helpful tools if you use them in the right way. Find out about all the college ranking lists you should read and how much you should rely on them.

Looking to attend a top-notch liberal arts school? Here's a list of the 28 best liberal arts colleges in the country.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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There is a lot to consider when conducting your college research. How does someone narrow down one college to attend? Make sure you have your application in line with transcripts, letters of recommendation, and essays. Look at the qualities of each college you are considering and see if they align with everything that you want to achieve during your college years. In this article, we break down a guide to researching colleges to help you determine which college is right for you.  

What to Look for When Researching Colleges?

You may be asking yourself “What is College research ?”. Well, it is something that is not only beneficial to you but colleges expect it from you as well. How will you know what college you want to go to without researching what they offer beforehand? Understand what each college that interests you offers and how that can benefit you and your goals. 

The reason colleges are expecting you to do this research is that it’ll help you understand what that particular college values. You will be able to confidently complete admission essays with the knowledge of what your desired college values are. 

Another thing to look at when you are researching colleges in the admissions process , what the campus life is like, and what extracurricular activities they offer are. Follow this guide to conduct a proper college search . 

How to Research Colleges and Universities: 6-Step Guide to Researching Schools

The best way to research different colleges is to know what you’re looking for in higher education . What are your goals for the next 4 years? During your research, it is important to take notes on everything that pertains to you. Keep in mind the program you are looking to enter, how hard the classes can be, what you are able to afford, and what extracurricular activities they have available for you.

Program Selection

This is one of the most important topics to cover while you are researching colleges . Now, right out of high school you may not know what career or field you want to study, but it is important to have a direction. What if there is a dream college you want to go to, but they don’t offer the field that you want to get into? You’ll have to find a college that offers the program you are interested in. 

When looking into the different programs that colleges provide, you should also consider the workload they require to achieve that education. All requirements vary, so choose what you will be able to handle.

researching college

Academic Rigor

Every college has a different expectation from its students. Looking at the school’s academic rigor will help you decide if you want to spend the money to be in a certain program. Based on how challenging the school is academically is how you will decide if it is the one for you. You can experience an easier transition from high school to college and choose a two-year community college , or you can choose a more competitive approach and apply to an ivy league that is generally known for its rigorous courses.

Student Support System

Whether you need a quiet place to study or a session with someone to talk about your mental health, most colleges will be there for you. There are a variety of systems put in place to help a student succeed at any campus. It is the student’s responsibility to research and utilize those opportunities offered to them. There are even programs that students can enter to help with networking while in college and can set up an early career path before they graduate. Internships are one of the most common things that a student can do while studying for higher education .

The Campus Life

Along with finding the right program for you, you need to make sure the campus life will also be beneficial for your mental health. There are always colleges participating in college fairs so you can get a better grasp of the dynamic. Not only that, but you should make it a point to make a campus visit out of your top 3 colleges. 

Will you be living on campus in the dorms or commuting to your desired college every day? These are more of the questions that you need to keep in mind when picking the best college for you.


Regardless of your financial standing, college can get expensive. Not only are you looking for the best program for your intended career, but you also have to ensure that it is in your price range. We suggest contacting the college admissions for your desired college to get all the right information. 

We also recommend looking into alternative financial aid when applying to colleges. During the enrollment process, you’ll be able to ask for assisted aid from the college. Along with signing up for financial aid , you can apply for scholarships and grants that are applicable to you. This is something that can also cover the cost of books and college tuition.

Important Information for You

Ideally, you want to find the best college for you. Keep in mind what college will help you connect in a cultural and academic way. No two colleges are the same, so you need to find one that suits you. It is okay to be deterred from a college because of cultural indifference. Even if they have the right program for you. Find a college that you will be comfortable with both culturally and academically.

What Should You Look for in a College? 3 Factors to Take Into Consideration

What do you want out of going to college? That is one of the biggest questions you have to ask yourself. Based on your answer, is how you will find the right college for you. How is your GPA looking? Create a list of colleges and make sure that you have all of the right qualifications to attend the school. College websites are the best place to find all the right information that you are looking for. Let’s take a closer look at some factors to watch out for while you are doing college research .  

Application Process

Every college is different, but something that you need to watch out for is college application deadlines. The application process can take a bit of time so you need to plan out how long it will take you to submit it. The admissions requirements generally involve your transcripts, assessments, essay (if applicable, what the topic is), and whether or not you need to include letters of recommendation. All of this information is something to consider when you are looking at the application process for each desired college. 


You should also consider the college’s accreditation when looking at the right school for you. There are certain colleges that haven’t been accredited yet. Most colleges are either in the process of being accredited or didn’t pass and are working on making changes to gain accreditation. The reason that you want to get into an accredited school is so that you can earn a real degree. Browse the different programs that the college offers to make sure that yours is properly accredited.

Admission Rate

The admission is another thing to consider. The rate gives you an idea of the percentage of students that apply verse those who get into the college. A college that has a lower acceptance rate is harder to get into, so the higher the acceptance rate the more potential there is that you will be accepted too. There are a ton of factors that colleges consider when deciding which students to accept. Grades, SAT, ACT, and a diverse student body that come from various backgrounds, volunteer experience, and abilities are just some of the factors considered.

emory essays

College Research Template

Find the perfect college for you with our college research template. They are organized by importance for when you are researching colleges .

Key Takeaways

  • March 30, 2022
  • 10th Grade , 11th Grade

6-Step Guide to Researching Colleges Effectively (with Template)

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How To Do College Research

Tips on doing college research

Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

How do you find your best-fit college? And when should you start researching and applying to colleges? Read on to have all your college research questions answered! 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are nearly 6,000 U.S. colleges and universities . Needless to say, picking the perfect college isn’t as easy as choosing what you’re having for dinner! 

Every university has something unique to offer, but there is much to consider when choosing the right college for you. Without further adieu, let’s talk about how to do college research!

How to Research Colleges: A Step-by-Step Process

How to research colleges: step-by-step

So, how do you start researching colleges? Here’s our step-by-step guide on how to do college research. 

Step 1: Identify Your Priorities

Before beginning your research, you’ll narrow your list by identifying your priorities and determining factors. These are the factors you should consider first: 

  • Programs offered 
  • Your budget

Knowing what you’re looking for helps eliminate what you don’t want. For example, if you’ve decided you want to go to college far away from your hometown, you can rule out colleges in your home state. 

Focusing on what’s most important to you is the first step in beginning your college research. 

Step 2: Begin Looking Up Colleges and Preparing a List

A great way to begin researching colleges is by attending college fairs: many high schools offer them annually.

Once you’ve identified your preferences, your search will become much more manageable. Talking to people who work for different colleges will provide the relevant insights you need to determine possible options. 

Go into your college fairs with your preliminary list and a pad of paper. Take notes as you learn more about each school, such as: 

  • What did you like?
  • What didn’t you like?
  • What did you find interesting? 
  • Did the school meet your preferences? 

If your high school doesn’t hold college fairs, you can do research from home. If you want more help than searching on your own, consider contacting an admissions consultant to help navigate your search. 

Step 3: Narrow Down Your List

You’re now ready to narrow your list to the colleges you’re sure you want to apply to.

The colleges you’ll apply to should be places where you can see yourself thrive and should meet your preferences. Remember, this is where you’ll spend the next four years of your life! 

What to Look For When Researching Colleges

You’re not alone if you’re unsure what to look for when researching colleges. Before starting your college research, consider these factors: 

  • Career goals 
  • Financial limitations
  • Geographical preferences

Before beginning your search, do some self-reflection. Here are some questions to ask when researching colleges.

What Do You Want to Study?

It’s challenging to determine what you want to do with the rest of your life so early. And it’s okay if you don’t know yet! But if you have some general ideas, they can help direct your search. 

Consider what classes, hobbies, and extracurriculars you enjoy most. Then, you can try to align a major with your interest areas. Remember, you generally don’t have to choose a major until your second year of college, but identifying your interests can help you find programs you’d love to attend. 

Do You Want to Stay Close to Home or Move Far Away?

Some people are reluctant to move away from home, and some can’t wait to explore and live independently in a brand-new place. Going to a college in a new place can be intimidating, whether you’re a three-hour drive or a plane ride away from home. 

Think about how often you want to visit home and potential travel time and expenses. For example, if you live in New York and want to stay close to home, you can search for in-state schools like Columbia or NYU. 

What Extracurriculars Are Important to You?

Colleges offer many extracurricular opportunities that could help you make your decision. Some extracurricular programs can even help you pay for college or stand out in your application . 

For example, are you interested in sports? Many colleges have excellent athletic opportunities, from simply participating on a team to earning athletic scholarships. 

From theater clubs to hockey teams, you should play into your interests and strengths.

Extracurriculars are a great way to make new friends and fit into your new community!

Do You Want to Attend a Small or Large College?

This is an important question for many reasons. If you want to attend a large school like the University of Florida, your introductory classes may be in a spacious hall with a few hundred students, and your teacher most likely won’t recognize you or your name throughout the semester.

On the other hand, a small campus is easier to navigate, and class sizes will be significantly smaller. But smaller campuses may feel like a high school setting, where everyone knows everyone. 

There’s no right or wrong choice here. Once again, it’s based on your preferences. Consider the relationships you want with students and teachers: do you value a close-knit community, or do you prefer some anonymity?

If you’re struggling to decide on the size of your preferred college , give our quiz down below a try to provide some clarity! 

What is Your Budget?

Having a general idea of your financial limitations for college is a huge help. Sit down with your parents or a school counselor to discuss your budget. If you’re financially limited, it isn’t the end of the world.

FAFSA and other financial aid programs can significantly cut your costs. However, remember that you’ll have to repay these loans after graduation. Your GPA, ACT, and SAT scores may also qualify you for scholarships that you don’t have to repay,

You may also be able to make college more affordable by studying in-state: some schools offer reduced rates for in-state students. 

Do You Want to Attend College in a Rural or Urban Setting?

Since you’ll spend four years or more in college, it’s essential to consider the city or town you’ll be living in. Do you prefer the hustle and bustle of a busy city? Or do you prefer the quiet, peaceful aura of a rural town? 

Big cities tend to be more expensive compared to rural settings. These additional costs add up in many big-city college towns in terms of: 

  • Transportation 

It’s also essential to think about opportunities to explore your interests and hobbies. Obtaining a college degree is hard work, but you should still be able to have fun where you live!

What Social Factors Are Important to You? 

It’s important to consider how you want to spend your time outside of the classroom. College is largely a social experience, so think about how your chosen college might fulfill your social expectations. 

Consider housing, for instance. How are the dorms set up on campus? How many roommates might you have? Would you need to share a bedroom? 

Meals and dining are also important. Are you required to participate in a meal plan? Will you cook meals in your dorm? Where do students typically eat their meals? 

You may also want to think about things like Greek life, on-campus clubs, regular school events, and the local community of the city. 

What Do Your High School Stats Look Like?

Honestly evaluating your stats can help you choose colleges. While many colleges don’t have SAT/ACT or GPA cutoffs, comparing your stats to past admitted students can help gauge your competitiveness. 

Here are a few examples of class profiles from the University of Notre Dame and Emory University:

Infographic outlining the University of Notre Dame's 2026 Class Profile

Source: Notre Dame

how to do research for college application

Source : Emory University

When Should You Start Your College Research?

You should start your college research as early as possible . Your junior year of high school is a good time to begin your college research. Your junior/senior years of high school are when you’ll take the ACT or SAT , which is important for college applications. Your scores and GPA can help you determine safety, target, and reach schools. 

Junior year is your time to explore, ask questions, and learn about colleges. Senior year is the time to finalize your college list and apply: it takes time to find the right college!

Which Schools Should You Apply To? How To Decide

Finalizing your college list is no simple feat. It takes reflection, preparation, and research. If you’re struggling to make decisions, planning college visits can help. Sometimes, a physical visit can help you determine if the school is a good fit for you. 

When you go on these college visits, take notes and ask lots of questions. As a bonus, talking to the person leading a college tour is an excellent opportunity for you to see the college through a current student’s eyes. 

Looking for some quick ideas on which schools you should apply to? Our College Selection Quiz can help you find your ideal school! 

College Research FAQs

Do you still have questions about school research and how to find your best-fit college? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions. 

1. How Many Colleges Should I Be Applying To?

There’s no specific number that you need to be shooting for. However, most students typically apply to 7-12 schools . 

2. How Do I Know If a College Is a Good “Fit” for Me?

Keep your preferences as a “checklist” while researching colleges. If you’re researching a college that meets your criteria, it’s a great fit! If you’re still unsure, try to visit the school so you can see it and learn more in person.’’

3. How Do You Do College Research? 

College research can take many forms: for example, you can research school websites, attend college fairs, and visit schools. 

4. Why Is College Research Important?

College research ensures that the colleges you apply to are schools you’d actually like to attend. You’ll spend at least four years at the college you choose: you want to ensure you’ll enjoy yourself!

5. What Is the Best Source for Researching Colleges?

Some of the best online college search resources include the College Navigator and application portals like the Common and Coalition Apps. 

6. What Do You Look for When Researching Colleges?

When you research colleges, you should consider: 

  • Interest areas/potential majors 
  • Location preferences 
  • Campus/class size preferences 

You should also consider the college’s extracurricular activities or other opportunities and the school’s culture. 

7. How Do I Start a College Search?

Starting your research can feel daunting, but once you determine your preferences, you can start wherever you like. Look at school websites, compare schools, and use your stats to build a varied school list. 

8. What Is the Biggest Mistake Students Make When Choosing a College?

The biggest mistake you could make when choosing a college is picking a college for the wrong reasons. When conducting college research, ensure you keep your wants and needs in mind.

How to Do College Research: Start Now and Don’t Give Up

Finding the right school isn’t easy, and it’s not something you decide overnight! Doing the necessary research is essential to making the right choice. 

Identifying what’s most important to you in a school is crucial. If you’ve identified your preferences and make the time to perform the necessary research, you’re sure to find the right school for you.

Identifying what’s most important to you in a school is crucial. If you’ve identified your preferences and made the time to perform the necessary research, you’re sure to find the right school for you.

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Your Step-by-Step Guide to Researching Colleges

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Getting into college is perhaps the most important part of the admissions process. However, deciding where to apply and ultimately attend is also important. How do you research colleges to decide which school is right for you? Here’s our step-by-step guide to looking into colleges.

Step 1: Start Early

Step 2: spend time thinking about your needs and wants, step 3: look online, step 4: ask others for advice, step 5: visit campuses, step 6: demonstrate interest.

Freshman year is not too early to start think about your college list. If you start visiting schools early, you’ll get a better sense of what type of school you’re looking for. For instance, you may think you want a large urban setting, but may discover you actually prefer a small liberal arts school after visiting enough campuses.

Give yourself time to explore. That way, you won’t have to make decisions too quickly. You’ll also be able to research thoroughly , so you don’t come across any surprises senior year—like discovering that the school’s culture is too rowdy for you—or commit to a school about which you don’t know very much.

Don’t let anyone else, including your parents, tell you what you should want. Your personal goals are what really matter in the admissions process.

Make a preliminary list of what you’d like in a college. Check out Kick Off Your College Research This Summer with These 5 Tips for advice on coming up with your ideas. Consider factors such as location, your desired major, the size of the school, the activities it offers, and any other aspects that are important to you. Think about where you would fit in. Having fit—ensuring that your personality and values line up with the school’s—is extremely important. What kind of student body would you fit into? For instance: Are you an introvert? Do you want to be around other introverts, or would you prefer more extroverted peers?

Learn more about having fit in What Does It Mean to Fit with a College? .

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Discover your chances at hundreds of schools

Our free chancing engine takes into account your history, background, test scores, and extracurricular activities to show you your real chances of admission—and how to improve them.

Everything starts with Google. Looking online can help kick off your research. You’ll see the rankings, selectivity, and if you line up with the typical student statistics. You can also find out which schools have a good reputation for your intended major. For instance, you might search for “creative writing” to find out where you can study your art as an undergraduate.

This is a good starting point , though of course you will need to research schools on your preliminary list much more thoroughly.

One of your best sources of advice is older peers who are in college. They can tell you what it’s really like to go to school at a specific college. However, remember that your experience is going to be unique to you.

You should also talk to admissions reps when they come to your high school or local college fairs. They can tell you about the kinds of students that thrive in the atmosphere and what types of courses and activities are most popular—which can help you gauge if your interests align with those of typical students. Parents and friends can be good resources, too, but ultimately, your own instincts should matter more. For instance, your parents may want you to attend a large Ivy League university, while you might prefer a more intimate, liberal arts setting. Remember that it’s your college experience, so your goals and ideas should come first.

An ideal way to figure out if you mesh well with the culture, people, and environment of a college is by visiting the school. Go on a campus tour, attend an orientation, sit in on courses, and talk to current students to get a feel for what attending school there is really like. You can setting up most of these opportunities through the admissions office. Read How to Make the Most of a Campus Visit to find out about how visiting colleges can help you determine whether it’s a good fit.

If you can’t visit, look for other ways to research the school, such as talking to alumni, having an informational interview, and asking lots and lots of questions. Check out How Can I Figure Out a School’s Culture Without Visiting the Campus? for more ideas.

Show colleges you’re interested in them by going to college fairs, talking to admissions representatives, and signing up to receive information online and by mail.

Not only does this show colleges you’re interested in them, which is important for admissions, but it will allow you to learn more about the school. Even getting a brochure can help you learn about the school’s culture—you’ll find out what they prioritize by what they choose to highlight in the collateral. You can also gain access to admissions forums to ask current students what the school is like. (If you don’t know where to find them, ask an admissions representative or current student.)

Taking Action

Research is an important aspect of the admissions process. As much as it may feel like a college is choosing you, you also need to choose a college that’s right for you. Follow these steps to make sure you know what you want and are informed about your decision about where to apply—and eventually choose to attend school.

For more information about researching colleges, read:

Don’t Visit Any Colleges Without Reading This First

How Many Colleges Should I Apply to?

Seven Tips for Creating Your College List

Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

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How To Research Colleges: 4 Steps To Finding the Perfect School

How To Research Colleges: 4 Steps To Finding the Perfect School

Researching colleges, while incredibly exciting, is no simple task. There are thousands of colleges and universities in the US and hundreds in the UK. While the vast array of options means you will be spoiled for choice — and that you can definitely build an application list that aligns with your goals and passions — it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to navigating the often complex college research landscape.

We’ve come up with 4 steps you can follow to kick start your college research journey, each of which will help you narrow down on the best fit colleges and universities for you! But before we dive into the 4 steps, let’s first consider why college research is such an important part of your application process!

Why should you do College Research?

Every high school student knows that you should research different schools before applying. But why is it so important to conduct thorough college research? Put simply, it is because every college applicant is different . It is important to consider multiple factors when researching schools and what may be important to you when you finally decide upon your future college.

Since college research is integral to deciding where to apply, you should start researching schools as early as possible . Ideally, you should try and start this process at least one year before application deadlines (the earlier the better) to give you ample time to refine your list of preferred colleges .

Additionally, your interests in high school should help guide you in figuring out what to look for when researching colleges. Before even beginning your college research, you should take time to think about the classes and extracurriculars you currently enjoy, and may want to continue in college and beyond.

Finally, you should also start thinking about a way to structure your college research. After looking at some statistics, such as acceptance rates , and taking stock of your own academic profile, consider categorizing potential schools as either “safety”, “target”, “reach” or even “extreme reach”. Our college admissions calculator can help you classify your favorite schools into the above groups.

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Step-by-Step Guide to Performing College Research

Now that we have actually established the importance of college research, next we must tackle exactly how to research colleges. This step-by-step guide will set you on the right path to discovering which college is the right fit for you !

1. Figure out your Preferences and/or Priorities

Before even beginning your college research, you should try to identify what exactly you are looking for in your ideal college . This will help you filter out the colleges that don’t interest you and to narrow down your research list.

Our college admissions calculator can help with this and may help you initially get an idea of what universities might be best suited for you. After checking out our admissions calculator, start considering a list of different factors that may help you determine what you are looking for in your ideal college and what you consider to be important while researching schools.

Some important factors include:

  • Location: would you rather study somewhere rural, urban, or suburban? Would you prefer to live somewhere similar to where you grew up, or are you looking for an entirely new environment?
  • Size: would you prefer a smaller or larger school? Are you looking to be a part of a large campus crowd or a close-knit community?
  • Academics: are you looking for a university that is more focused on undergraduate teaching or research opportunities? What do you want to study? It is common for high school students to not be entirely sure what they want to study in college, but if you do happen to have a major in mind, make sure to research the best schools within your chosen field of study.
  • Cost: is cost an issue for you? If so, are you eligible for any scholarships or for financial aid? While cost can be an important factor, do not necessarily let high tuition costs prevent you from applying to a school you really like.

Once considering these key factors, it may also help to start thinking about other minor considerations, such as:

  • Social aspects
  • Food and dining options
  • Extracurricular interests
  • Athletic opportunities

In regards to the athletic factor, if you are interested in pursuing sport at a varsity level in college, make sure to familiarize yourself with the recruiting process. Maybe even book a consultation with our team, who can help you leverage both your athletics and your academics to gain acceptance into your dream school.

Of course, the above lists and suggestions are far from exhaustive, but it is important to start considering your preferences in regards to these major factors before beginning your college research. Having an idea of what is important to you in your ideal college will help you narrow down your search before you even start.

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 2. Prepare a List and Begin your College Research

After figuring out your priorities and preferences, the next step is to actually start researching colleges. Keep track of each college you research and make notes of what you liked and disliked about that school.

If you know a current student at a college you are researching, consider reaching out to them to ask about their experience so far. As you complete your research, keep in mind your preferences and consider giving each school a rating out of five or ten for each factor.

Make a note of any special features you come across while researching each school, as this may help you remember what set that college apart from others as you review your list later down the road.

Don’t forget that there are many online resources at your disposal that can help you with your college research. Make sure to check out our website for university profiles, which cover a number of top US and UK universities.

You can also peruse our blog , which regularly publishes in-depth guides to help you apply to different schools. We also offer a number of eBooks that offer insights into some of the most prestigious schools in the US and the UK.

You could also venture over to our YouTube channel and take a look at our videos covering different universities and following a day in the life of current students.

Finally you can attend one of our webinars , during which our admissions experts and Former Admissions Officers offer tips and inside knowledge as to what top schools are looking for.

3. Refine your List and Consider Acceptance Rates

After performing your college research, it is time to narrow down your list. Once again, categorize your favorite schools into either “safety”, “target”, “reach” or “extreme reach”. Make sure to check out the US News or QS World Rankings to find out more about the reputation of each school.

Also ensure that you research acceptance rates in order to get an idea of how difficult it will be to gain admission. Remove any schools from your list that do not fit your needs as you conclude the college research process. At the end of this stage, you should ideally have a list of anywhere between ten and fifteen schools that fit your criteria.

4. Speak to a College Admissions Consultant

Now that you have your ideal colleges in mind, this would be the perfect time to book a free consultation with one of our expert Academic Advisors ! Not only can they look over your list to make sure that you haven’t missed any universities that might be a good fit for you, they can also provide a clearer picture of what you may need to do to increase your chances of admission to each of the schools on your list.

Researching universities is no easy task. However, if you start with these steps you will be on your way to figuring out your ideal colleges in no time!

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Final Thoughts

In the journey of researching colleges, we have delved into a world of possibilities, choices, and self-discovery. Navigating through the myriad of options, from campus cultures to academic programs, has been both exhilarating and daunting. As we conclude our exploration, it's evident that this process is not just about finding the right institution; it's about finding the right fit for our aspirations, values, and ambitions.

So, whether you're finalizing your application list or narrowing down your options, approach this journey with confidence in the research you've conducted, faith in your abilities, and a genuine eagerness to embark on a transformative educational endeavor. Your college years will undoubtedly become a chapter of rich experiences, lasting friendships, and unparalleled growth — all stemming from the foundation you've built through diligent research.

Key Resources & Further Reading

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The College Application Process

You’ve done all your research, you’ve picked your schools, and you’re ready to start applying. It can feel overwhelming, but we’ve made the process much simpler by breaking it down into smaller steps.

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Participating in undergraduate research at UC San Diego is a rewarding experience that provides many benefits:

  • Create and share knowledge​
  • Build relationships with mentors​
  • Gain critical thinking and communication skills​
  • Cultivate community with peers​
  • Travel to conferences​
  • Practice public speaking​
  • Develop a broad professional network
  • Get paid and/or receive academic credit​
  • Prepare for graduate school

If you are interested in getting involved with undergraduate research, but need guidance on how to start, we are here to help! Below we detail common factors and opportunities to consider when you're narrowing down your research options and completing the application process.

Important!  Getting involved with undergraduate research is not a linear process (step 1, step 2, etc). The information below is in a list to help you easily find what you need, but the process of getting involved with research is not the same for every opportunity or program. T he order of the steps will vary across opportunities .  For example, depending on the program, you may need to find a faculty mentor prior to applying to the program, after applying to the program, or a faculty mentor will be assigned to you. Use the information below as applicable and necessary.

Personal factors to consider

When considering research programs or other research opportunities, it is important to know your wants, needs, and eligibility. Below are a list of questions to think about and answer to help you when you start researching, narrowing down, and applying to opportunities. Consider current and future interests when answering the questions. 

  • What goals do you have in mind (e.g. gain technical skills, gain experience for medical school applications, etc.)?
  • What skills do you want to gain?
  • What skills do you have to offer?
  • UC San Diego
  • Other university
  • Out-of-state
  • When do you want to do research? 
  • Academic year and/or summer?
  • Which quarter(s)? 
  • How many experiences do you want to complete?
  • What other time commitments do you have in your life?
  • Pay as an employee
  • Scholarship/stipend
  • Research/class credits
  • Co-curricular record
  • What field(s) do you want to do research in?
  • Do you want to do research individually or with a group? (This often, but not always, depends on the field/professor).
  • Do you want to work on your own project or a professor/PI's project? (This often, but not always, depends on the field/professor).
  • Citizenship
  • Race/ethnic identity
  • Family income
  • Student status (number of course units you have)
  • Career goals
  • Education goals (bachelor's, master's, doctorate, medical school, etc.)
  • Are you a first-generation student? (your parent(s) didn't earn a 4-year degree)

Research opportunities

There are many ways to find and participate in research at UC San Diego and elsewhere. Here are some of the ways to explore your options. These apply to all fields and interest areas, including interdisciplinary options. 

Hint:  When researching opportunities, look for those geared towards your chosen field as well as those open to "all fields."

  • Search the Undergraduate Research Hub's programs
  • Search the All UC San Diego Undergraduate Research Programs database
  • Academic Internship Portal
  • Research Experience & Applied Learning Portal
  • TAs / graduate students
  • Student organizations
  • Mentoring programs
  • Opportunities outside for UC San Diego (FAQ)
  • Opportunities abroad (FAQ)

Field specific factors

The information below is based on common experiences of our students; however, some students have converse experiences.  Use the information to guide your pursuit of conducting undergraduate research, but understand that your experience may be different.

Arts, humanities, and social sciences

For arts, humanities, and social sciences (e.g., music, literature, sociology) students, it is common to work with a professor individually, whether through a formal opportunity/program or through volunteering. Our information on finding a mentor can help you find a faculty member to work with. 

In these fields, it can be easier to pursue your own research project.

In addition to the research opportunities listed above, you may be able to

  • Volunteer for a professor with similar research interests
  • Ask a professor if you can do research for 199 credit (without a formal program)

Engineering, life sciences, and physical sciences

For engineering, life sciences, and physical sciences (e.g., engineering, biology, physics) students, it is common to work in a lab / with a research group on a ongoing project, whether through a formal opportunity/program or through volunteering. 

In addition to the research opportunities listed above, you may also want to

  • Look for undergraduates listed (this indicates that they are open to working with undergraduates)
  • Reach out to an undergraduate and/or graduate student to learn details about this research group
  • Find contact information for this research group and contact them about opportunities

Evaluate opportunities

Consider multiple options! Don't limit yourself to one program. You can apply to multiple options at a time and can participate in different options throughout your undergraduate career.

Important!  After you decide on the opportunities that you want to consider, research what is required to apply.

  • How they align with your answers to the questions in the "things to consider" list above
  • Eligibility
  • Requirements
  • Application due dates
  • Application documents (e.g. personal statement, letter of recommendation, transcripts)
  • Application processes
  • Research group requirements and expectations (if applicable)

Other steps: picking a topic, picking a mentor, applying, etc.

Remember: Getting involved with undergraduate research is not a linear process (step 1, step 2, etc). The information below is in a list to help you easily find what you need, but the process of getting involved with research is not the same for every opportunity or program. The order of the steps will vary across opportunities.

  • Choose a research topic
  • Find a faculty research mentor
  • Ask for a letter of recommendation
  • Reach out to the writing hub  for help
  • Undergraduate Research Hub (URH) application process  
  • For non-URH opportunities, visit their websites for application instructions.
  • Review our FAQs  for commonly asked questions
  • Contact a URH staff member with any further questions!

The Research Guide

Anahi Ibarra is a UCSD Alumna that created a research flip-book guide for her TRELS Spring 2020 research project, specifically for first generation college students. She hopes this PDF guide can help all students interested in research and provide resources on how to get involved on campus.

Check out the Guide!

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The Power of Research Projects in College Admissions

Janos Perczel

Janos Perczel , former Harvard research fellow and co-founder of Polygence , discusses how research projects and working with mentors can help students stand out to universities, and the role IECs can play in this effort.

How research shaped my academic path

I was fortunate to have a physics teacher in high school, who took an early interest in mentoring and nurturing me as a researcher. We dove deep into the strange world of relativity and quantum mechanics and read original texts from Einstein and Heisenberg about space-time manifolds and Schrödinger’s cat. Under my mentor’s guidance, I wrote early research papers that allowed me to explore these topics in depth and hone my abilities as a researcher. These early experiences set me up for success as a researcher in college and led me to pursue research in quantum physics during my doctorate at MIT and while a research fellow at Harvard. 

Research is a critical product of higher education


The DNA, the radar, game theory and the Google search algorithm were all discovered at top research institutions, such asCambridge, MIT, Princeton and Stanford. Research at these top universities (so-called R1s) is a collaborative effort between professors, graduate students and undergraduates. This is why these schools look for students who are capable of doing high-quality independent academic work when evaluating prospective applicants. It is important to note that even at predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUIs) students engage in serious research, because such an open-ended activity cultivates creativity, persistence, and team spirit in students.

Research helps students stand out

According to the U.S. News and World Report , “High school students who have an impressive personal project they are working on independently often impress colleges, because their commitment to a successful solo endeavor conveys initiative, self-discipline and originality”. 

The reason for this is simple. High school grades are often terrible predictors of future success (Sir John Gurdon, Nobel Prize winner in Medicine ranked last out of 250 in his year group at biology). Similarly, test scores, AP exams and summer camps with a set curriculum give students little opportunity to showcase their academic creativity and intellectual rigor. This makes it difficult for colleges to identify the most promising students, especially if they have a non-traditional background. 

In contrast, a research project is by definition a unique and highly personal achievement that allows students to showcase their intellectual abilities at their best. This is why colleges encourage students to distinguish themselves through independent projects. For instance, MIT even has a creative portfolio section for all students to upload a significant research project as part of their application. Independent projects are gaining even more importance as college admissions are shifting away from standardized test scores (e.g. the University of California recently decided to phase out SAT/ACT scores completely).

How to find a research mentor


Few high school students ever get the chance to connect with a mentor at a deep level and get the attention and guidance needed to pursue an impactful research project. One potential remedy is to encourage students to reach out to researchers through their personal networks or via cold emails. However, often even the most experienced educational consultants are unsure how to help their students do this. While best practices vary depending on the field, general advice can be summarized as follows:

  • Identify someone with the right expertise Surprisingly often students reach out to a researcher whose research area is only tangentially related to what the student wants to pursue. The more relevant the student’s proposed project to the researcher’s field, the less effort it will be to provide mentorship, making a positive response more likely.
  • Show demonstrated interest Many students claim interest in advanced fields like AI, astrophysics or WWII history, but few students make the effort to explore these fields in depth despite the wealth of available resources online, such as edX, Khan Academy and even Wikipedia. Researchers do not have the bandwidth or interest to teach students the absolute basics and will likely only engage with students, who would genuinely benefit from guidance with advanced topics.
  • Articulate what help is needed Researchers often have very busy schedules and fear taking on additional responsibilities that involve a lot of handholding. If a student clearly states what kind of help she wants to receive (e.g. identifying relevant papers to read, understanding a particularly challenging concept or getting feedback on a journal submission draft) the researcher can better estimate how much time commitment the mentorship will involve.

It is important to note that students can do a research project even without a mentor. It just takes resilience and focus to push through the inevitable tough patches without getting discouraged. Educational consultants can play a key role in ensuring that students stay motivated throughout the process. By definition a research question has not been answered before and a student cannot be sure whether they will succeed in finding the result they are looking for. Research is also a relatively slow process (the relevant time scale is months), which is often daunting to students who are used to quick feedback loops, such as getting an A in a test they sat last week. 

How to showcase a project

Students working on a project by themselves also need additional support and encouragement to find the right avenue to showcase their work. Educational consultants can assist students by making them aware of high school journals (e.g. the Journal of Youths in Science or the Concord Review ), science competitions (like the Regeneron ISEF Competition ) and other creative outlets (like Spotify ) for showcasing their work. Each journal, competition and publishing platform has its own formatting requirements for submissions and it is important that educational consultants instruct students to follow the submission guidelines closely to ensure successful publication.

A research academy for high schoolers: Polygence

Some students may find it helpful to find a research mentor through the online research academy, Polygence , which I co-founded with Jin Chow , a comparative literature scholar from Stanford University. Students at Polygence work with an academic mentor one-on-one for 3-6 months to develop an in-depth research project. Mentors guide them from idea to execution and presentation. Polygence students have done projects ranging from using AI to detect gender bias in the media and modelling the spread of infectious diseases , to studying privacy law violations by tech companies and exploring 20th century fashion history. Upon project completion, students publish papers in high school journals, create podcasts and present at leading scholarly conferences.

In Conclusion

Regardless of whether a student finds a research mentor through a cold email, personal connections, Polygence , or with the support of their education consultant, the key to success is for students to find joy in what they are doing and to keep going despite inevitable challenges. Thus educational consultants can set up their students for success by encouraging them to pursue a topic that they find genuinely interesting and by keeping them going through constant encouragement and feedback.

Janos recently joined the CollegePlannerPro team for a live webinar to discuss this topic at length. 

Watch the full recorded webinar below:  

How to write a rockstar blog post, the recipe for success for the independent educational consultant.

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How To Choose a Research Study for a College Application

Julia de Raadt

Julia de Raadt

Head of research and lead admissions expert, table of contents.

  • Identify Areas of Interest 

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Stay up-to-date on the latest research and college admissions trends with our blog team.

How To Choose a Research Study for a College Application

When it’s time to get serious about college, you may be curious what types of research studies will look best on your college application. Research studies are a great opportunity to gain valuable firsthand experience (and add an impressive bullet to your college application, to boot). Many summer research programs even offer direct contact and learning experiences with top-rated professors, which will set you apart from your peers. As a matter of fact, there are hundreds of educational research programs offered throughout the country. But, how do you know which ones are the “real deal”? A simple google search won’t be enough to know which research study will take your college application to the next level. Let’s look beyond the surface.

Identify Areas of Interest 

To find the right educational research program, you should start by identifying what types of research studies you are interested in. While it can be cool to participate in a paid research study like the Rockefeller Summer Science Research program, you might not be an aspiring scientist. College admissions teams are most interested in work you have done in an area that is similar to your potential major. After all, getting good grades is an important part of your college application, but it’s no longer enough to get you into top colleges. By identifying areas of interest, you demonstrate your intellectual motivation and unique perspective; each of these things can help improve your chances of getting into your favorite schools. 

Summer is a great time for rest and relaxation. But, it’s also a time that students can make big strides towards building an impressive college application. During the school year, you can get bogged down with extracurricular activities on top of your already demanding school work. The summer, on the other hand, is a great time to find opportunities like a summer research program. 

After you have identified your area of interest and selected the ideal participation timeline, it’s time to find the right program for you. However, this isn’t always an easy task for high schoolers on their own. Luckily, there are organizations such as Empowerly to help you through this process. Empowerly was created specifically to help students navigate the path to top colleges. With a little bit of help, you can find the types of research studies that will be most worth your time. 

Students should also consider any resources or partnerships available that might help them find the right research study. Many schools have a resource center that connects students to specific educational research opportunities. If not, or if your guidance counselor at school is not available for meetings, keep in mind that this is also another service provided by Empowerly . Empowerly has various partnerships to help its members connect to organizations. Finding a research study can be difficult, but with some extra help and resources, you can find an opportunity that will not only match your needs, but exceed your expectations. 

Students who get into top colleges don’t do so by accident. It takes years of hard work, planning, and preparation to build a high-quality college application. Opportunities such as a strong summer research program won’t just fall into your lap. If you are curious about how you rank against students who are applying for the same schools, check out the Empowerly Quiz. The Empowerly Quiz will give you a broad result regarding your college preparedness. They also offer the Empowerly Score ®. Your Empowerly Score® is a detailed algorithm that accounts for specific and nuanced information, thereby analyzing your impact and competitiveness for top colleges in the United States. (The Empowerly Score® is available only through an Empowerly account.)


Getting into your best-fit college can change the trajectory of your life. On the other hand, knowing that can put a lot of pressure on students and their families. If you are looking for some help through this process, contact Empowerly . Empowerly will connect you with a college admissions expert to help you create a plan for success. Your connection with a College Counselor will help lead you to opportunities for educational research, internships, workshops, and so much more. 

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Research on Your College Applications: How Should You Frame It?

Photo of GP Lebourdais

By GP LeBourdais

Fulbright Scholar, and the Head of Strategic Initiatives at Polygence

7 minute read

At the University of Pennsylvania, 1 of every 3 students admitted last year did a research project in high school. That’s a lot! So it’s not surprising that we get lots of questions here at Polygence about how students should frame research projects on their college applications. Where should I mention my research project? How do I describe it? Are colleges looking for research project experience?

At our recent Symposium of Rising Scholars, we got the inside scoop from Purvi Mody, CEO and Head of College Counseling at Insight Education. In our conversation, she explains why research is important and how to feature research projects on college applications. You can watch the presentation here , and we’ve summarized her main points below.

Create a research project tailored to your interests and your schedule

Polygence pairs you with an expert mentor in your area of passion. Together, you work to create a high quality research project that is uniquely your own. We also offer options to explore multiple topics, or to showcase your final product!

Benefits of Doing Research as a High School Student

1. feed your curiosity.

In its most basic form, research is a process of asking questions about the world and searching for answers to them. In that sense, it’s a very natural thing! Embrace your curiosity by asking the questions that matter to you. Doing research will then empower you to find the answers.

2. Get Hands-on Experience

Reading about how to do research is great, but there’s nothing better than getting hands-on experience in designing your own experience, collecting and cleaning data, and forming conclusions based on your findings. Each lesson you learn now will contribute to your expertise as you apply to colleges, internships and jobs down the road.

3. Gain Practical Knowledge

Often the lessons we learn in the classroom can seem abstract or esoteric. You might find yourself asking questions like, “When am I actually going to use this trigonometry formula?,” or “How will this episode from American political history ever help me in real life?” While not every tool or fact from your school work or independent research will serve you in the time to come, some may actually become very useful. So it’s in your best interest to learn widely to prepare.

4. Explore college majors and careers

Do you think you know what you want to do with your whole life? In high school we are exposed to a limited range of possibilities, so independent research is a powerful way of learning about the world of options. Having a better sense of what subjects you actually like will help you save valuable time and money at college. Plus, this generation is likely to have 10 different jobs over the course of their careers, so the more experience you have, the more options will be open to you.

5. Connect with a Mentor

There are so many people supporting you throughout your life, from parents to teachers to coaches. Mentors, especially those who have traveled a road you want to follow, can be another great source of guidance and inspiration. Connecting with an expert in a field that interests you is an exceptional opportunity; make sure you ask questions not just about how to do things, but also about how they made the decisions that led them to where they are now.

The Polygence Pathfinders Program

Pathfinders is a career discovery mentorship experience designed to help you explore different career paths and gain more clarity about your future. Learn from three world class mentors in the fields of your choice and discover your passions!

6. Develop Life-long Skills

Doing research on historical photographs or structuring a clear methodology for your experiments might feel like very specific skills, but many aspects of them will be hugely helpful in other parts of your life, from organizing your personal life to managing a project at work.

7. Unlock a Life of Adventure!

As you follow your curiosities, you may find yourself going down unexpected paths. To speak from my own experience, my love of photography and the outdoors growing up in Maine brought me to high alpine passes in Switzerland on a Fulbright Grant, to the islands of Alaska teaching Stanford students, to a tall ship in the Arctic Circle for my dissertation research. You never know where your research will take you!

Your Project Your Schedule - Your Admissions Edge!

Register to get paired with one of our expert mentors and to get started on exploring your passions today! And give yourself the edge you need to move forward!

How to Feature Research Experience on Your Applications

1. activities list.

Colleges love to see how you’re spending your time beyond formal clubs. Tip: make sure to explain why you chose the research you did, so admissions readers learn more about your personal motivations.

2. Additional Information

If there’s an opportunity to describe your research experience and why you love the topic here, do so! Publishing in a preprint archive like the Research Archive of Rising Scholars or in a peer-reviewed journal are also achievements to share in additional information or on your CV.

3. Personal Statement

A research project could play a small role in your personal statement or could be the main event. Many Polygence students, including those writing IB extended essays , use their research experience to tell a story about themselves: what their passion is, why they’re excited about it, how they approach questions, how they overcome obstacles, and the changes they want to bring about in the world. This is your chance to tell your story!

4. Supplemental College Essays

Many colleges now have unique supplemental essays with questions like “What do you want to study and why do you want to study it here?,” with prompts to explain what led you down this path. This can be a great place to note, “When I did research on this topic, it made me think of majoring in this topic. I know your school has a great program in this field, which is why I’m so excited to study there.”

5. College Admissions Interviews

Demonstrating your ability to talk about complex research—and to explain it clearly to non-specialists—can impress your admissions or alumni interviewers. Especially if your project is unique and memorable, this is a perfect opportunity to make an impression. No one else can talk about your project!

6. Recommendation Letters

As an expert in their own field, your mentor can be a powerful advocate for you in a recommendation letter. Students can also share their research with their teachers at school to demonstrate their independence and creativity, allowing the teacher to give a fuller impression of the work you do both in and out of class.

7. Course Selection

Diving into research can reveal new directions for what you want to study even while you’re still in high school. So, a research project could help you to steer your profile in a certain direction to help tell a story about your interests on your applications, too.

What are colleges looking for?

One increasingly common area that admissions professionals pay attention to is a student’s “non-cognitive factors.” These are also known as “transferable” or “soft skills” that are highly valued not only in the workplace but in collaborative areas of higher education. The following traits are not only what admissions officers are looking for in applications; they also happen to be qualities you develop naturally during a research project.

1. Communication 2. Leadership 3. Curiosity 4. Creativity 5. Organizational Skills 6. Analytical Skills 7. Problem Solving

As you fold your research into your applications, keep these traits in mind. Highlighting them can help you show how you will contribute to the community at the schools you want to attend.

Finally, remember that while research is a powerful tool to help you stand out in the admissions process, it’s not simply a means to an end. The lists above demonstrate how things you learn during the research process will benefit you not just in school but in life. The lessons of research will always be with you no matter where you end up studying. The sky’s the limit!

"At the University of Pennsylvania, 1 of every 3 students admitted last year did a research project in high school."

Want to Learn More?

Join Polygence and do your own research project tailored towards your passions and guided by one of our expert mentors!

Upcoming Summer 2024 Application Deadline is May 12, 2024.  

Click here to apply.


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How to Write About Research in Your College Application

So, you’re a standout student who’s done a research project under the mentorship of an accomplished faculty member, in a field you’re incredibly passionate about. Now what? How do you translate all of this into a stellar college application? In this guide, we’ll go through the different ways to write about research while applying to college.

If you are unsure of how you should approach research in high school in the first place, then check out our guide here .

Does research look good on my college application?

Yes, yes, and yes! If you have a passion in a particular area, doing research in that field is a fantastic way to explore your interests, set the building blocks for a future career, and stand out on college applications. The college selection process becomes more and more competitive each year. Doing a research internship or program shows that you are someone with interests, an initiative to pursue those interests, ambition, and an eagerness to learn. You also show that you’ve been able to work in a professional environment early on, along with other expert researchers. One of the most important pros though is that doing research offers ample opportunities to write about an important experience in your college applications.

Should I include my research experience in my college application?

The first thing you should do in the college application process is to identify your story. Who is the “you” you want to convey to colleges? And where does research fit into that? College applications are about proof. If you claim that you are passionate about marine biology and want to be a marine biologist, then the fact that you did research under a marine biology professor is great evidence of this passion. This is something you’d really want to focus on in building your marine biology story. The first and most important avenue in doing this is through writing about it.

Of course, you want to weigh the importance of your research yourself. You might use all or some of the following avenues to mention your research, depending on what you want your holistic application to look like. How much did research shape you as a person? Do you have a lot to talk about regarding your research experience? If the answer is no, you might not write your common app essay about your experience but highlight it in your activities list and add your report as supplemental material. If you have a lot of other, more significant experiences that demonstrate your interest in art history, then you might focus on those, rather than your research in the field. If your research was a core part of your high school journey, then the common app essay might be a great place for it. It’s up to you to decide, but decide carefully: wherever you showcase it, make sure your research experience has optimal function and added value in the place that it is.

When NOT to include your research experience

Don’t try to force research in where it doesn’t fit. In your interview for example, you want to bring up your research experiences naturally. You want it to fit easily into your story, not force it down your admissions officer’s throat! Talk about the genuine, special moments you experienced; that’s the best and most effective way to make it fit! If there were no genuine, special moments, if you don’t think your research really helped your growth—don’t make it into something it’s not.

If you do choose to include it (most will), here’s where you could include it -

The eight places to include research in your common app

Write about research in your personal statement essay

Almost all schools require a common app or personal statement essay and a couple of other supplemental essays. These essays are important: this is where you explain your story and your passions. You might therefore choose to have your research experience act as the topic for the common app. If you choose to do this, then you’ll really need to focus in on one story from your overall experience. This is not the time to show off all your accomplishments in the lab: leave that to the awards list. This is the time to remember: what was a moment you felt challenged in the field and fought to overcome this challenge? Was there a moment where you realized that this was really what you wanted to do as a career? How was doing research a truly unique and changing experience for you, and can you tie this into what the rest of your application says about you? To be able to tell these stories effectively, you’ll want to keep track of what happened each day of your research program or internship. Write things down and reflect during the process, rather than trying to remember what you felt two summers ago.

That being said, you want to think about the best possible story to tell for your common app, the one that most represents you . If the best story you can tell doesn’t belong to your research experience, then don’t force yourself to write about your research projects. Instead, you might include it in another way. For example, Student A wants to write about how she realized she wanted to be a physicist. The focus of her essay is on her first-ever physics class and how she was blown away by the work of Marie Curie. In the end, she continues the story by mentioning the different ways she has pursued physics since, including her independent research projects in the field, showing the admissions committee that she is truly passionate about this path.

Include research in your supplemental essays

The same logic that followed your common app essay can be applied to the supplemental essays. If you don’t think your research internship should star in the common app, but it is still something you really want to talk about, then the supplemental essays are the place for it. These essays usually have given prompts; make sure you are able to talk about research in a passionate way while following the prompt. Again, it should still be about the important moments you experienced while working under your mentor or with your team. Again, don’t focus on the data, numbers, or achievements quite yet; leave that to your activities and awards list.

When schools ask the question “why us”, including your knowledge of researchers at the school can be a great way to showcase what you know. You can relate back to your own research and then talk about how this research would fit in one professor’s lab at the school.

List your research in your activities list

Your activities are typically going to be listed in order of importance. Your research should probably be in at least the top three: it’s definitely a unique experience to demonstrate your passion and shows you’ve taken that extra step that most students don’t take. You’ll want to describe your experience succinctly while including some standout details: what was the name of your professor? How many people worked on your team? How many people was your paper peer-reviewed by?

Put your publications in the awards section

There is also an awards and honors section in the common app. If you have any recognition related to your research (ex. first place at a research fair, best research paper, chosen to be published in a journal, etc.), this is the place to list them. You are allowed 100 characters to describe each honor—if the award isn’t incredibly well known or needs some context, you’ll want to add a small description. Who is the award given to? How selective was the process?

Showcase your research through supplemental material

Supplemental material is not required by any college, but it is where you provide information that you feel really adds to your college application. If your story centers around your passion in this field and you were able to complete a research paper, create a final presentation, or a final report, this is “proof” that would greatly add to your application and the picture of “who you are.”

However, it’s important to note that if you choose to submit a supplement like a research paper, it needs to be a good one. It’s one thing to say that you’ve done research and were good at it, it’s another thing to actually show this research and have admission officers read through it. You might make sure that your report or paper has been thoroughly proofread by your research advisor, as well as their colleagues.

Having your mentor write about your research through a letter of recommendation

A huge benefit to doing research is that you gain another potential letter of recommendation, this time from an expert in what you claim to be your field of interest. Many students have their mentors submit an additional letter of recommendation for them, attesting to their skills, passion, knowledge, and eagerness to learn. This is incredibly helpful if your mentor is a university faculty member, even more so if they are a faculty member at the university you’re applying to. They can speak on how great you fit into a university environment and how well you work with the advisors and students at that university.

To get a great recommendation, you need to develop a great relationship with your mentor. Make sure you have given your research experience your all and show everything you have to offer. Ask them questions, be curious, be inviting, and be yourself!

Add research experience in your resume

The common app offers optional space for you to include your resume. If you think it would be fitting, this is the perfect place to put your research internship. In the resume, you want to summarize your experience in just a few bullet points, capturing the most important parts: this will be similar to your activities list. You can think about having one or two quantitative and one or two qualitative bullets. For the quantitative: what data did you help find? What computer programs did you master? What was the size of the team you worked in and what did you guys accomplish? For the qualitative: what skills did you build? What parts of the project did you lead? Make sure to also include the dates, the institution or program, and your mentor’s name!

Talk about research in your college interview

Chances are that your college of choice is going to interview you to decide whether or not you’re a good fit. This is a great way to push the narrative that you’re interested in a particular field, and you’ve pursued research opportunities in this field. For example, if they ask you why you’re interested in the college, you might bring up how you worked under one of their professors during a summer internship. You might bring up that you stumbled upon one of their department’s research reports while you were doing your own research on the topic and found it incredibly fascinating! The interview is a great place to get more detailed and show how interested you really are.

Tips for including research in your college application

Ask your mentor to go over what you write

The research mentor you worked under has a lot of experience in writing about research. If you had a great experience working for them, then they’d be more than happy to look it over and check for accuracy, mention moments in the lab you forgot to talk about, or other data you could include. They know how to best frame research experiences on your resume, what statistics are most impressive, etc. If you didn’t have a research mentor while conducting your research, the mentors at Lumiere are always happy to help!

Keep a balance of quantitative and qualitative descriptions

The essays are a great place to get qualitative: what was the story? How did you feel? What was a moment where you learned? The resume and awards list is a great place to get quantitative. If your program was very prestigious, include the acceptance rate! If your paper was very highly reviewed, include the rating! In your application, you want both elements you can tell stories about and elements you can back up with numbers and evidence for your research to seem well-rounded. You want to show that it was a) a great learning experience and b) a legitimate, accomplished one.

Let’s address one final question: do you need to publish your research to talk about it in your application?

The answer is: certainly not. Very few high school students get their research published, although Lumiere does provide a guide on selective high school research publications . The point of research in high school is to gain skills, expertise, mentors, and stories you can talk about, while showing colleges what a motivated, passionate student you are. This means the most important thing is not publication, but the ability to showcase your research well in your application.

Another option for getting research experience

There are many ways to get research experience. If you are passionate about research and want to do advanced research, you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program , a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 2100 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Amelia is a current junior at Harvard College studying art history with a minor in economics. She’s enthusiastic about music, movies, and writing, and is excited to help Lumiere’s students as much as she can!

32 Questions to Ask on a College Visit

Students should feel free to ask questions during an information session or on tour.

Questions to Ask on a College Visit

Rear view of two university students walk down campus stairs at sunset

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Prospective students should conduct at least basic research to facilitate questions to ask during the information session or on tour, experts say.

Key Takeaways

  • Before a campus visit, students should do basic research on the school.
  • Students and their families have various opportunities to ask questions.
  • No question is dumb.

College visits, whether in person or virtual, can help give prospective students a better feel of campus life.

Contrary to popular belief, however, students don’t need to have that “a-ha” moment when they eventually find the campus where they belong, says Thyra Briggs, vice president for admission and financial aid at Harvey Mudd College in California.

“I just don't think that happens for most students,” she says. “I don't want students to walk away from a visit where that didn't happen thinking, ‘Oh, this is not the place for me.’ This is a long-term relationship. It's not necessarily love at first sight. … In this age of instant gratification, I think it's an important thing to give a school a chance to affect you in a different way.”

For an in-person visit, families should prepare ahead of time by checking the weather and dressing comfortably as tours are mostly held outside.

"Leave plenty of time at an individual campus and allow yourself to enjoy the experience, be present in the moment and (don't) feel rushed because that could also skew your perception of things," says Bryan Gross, vice president for enrollment management at Hartwick College in New York.

It’s also important, experts say, to conduct at least basic research on the institution – even if it’s just looking at their social media accounts – to help facilitate questions to ask during the information session or on tour.

"We know that for some of you, this may be the first time you are going through this," Briggs says. "For others, it's a different student (going through the process) than the student you had who's older. So there’s no bad questions. ... I would hope that any college would welcome any question a student would ask.”

Here are 32 example questions, collected from college admissions and enrollment professions, that students don't always think to ask on college visits. These questions – edited for length or clarity – were provided by Briggs, Gross and Brian Lindeman, assistant vice president of admissions and financial aid at Macalester College  in Minnesota.

Questions About Admissions

  • Does this school consider demonstrated interest?
  • Is there an opportunity for prospective students to sit in on a class to experience a real lecture?
  • Are there options to receive a lunch or dinner pass at the dining hall to try the food?

Questions About Academics

  • Where do students typically study?
  • How does advising work?
  • What are the academic strengths of this school?
  • What opportunities are there for study abroad and exchange programs?
  • If available, are these global programs directly run by this school – where faculty members travel with students – or are these study abroad programs outsourced to a third-party company?
  • Are these study abroad experiences built into the tuition or are there additional fees to participate?

Questions About Financial Aid

  • What is this school's average financial aid package?
  • What is the average net cost when students enroll?
  • What is the current level of funding with endowed scholarships – how much are donors contributing to scholarships?
  • Do you offer merit aid ? If so, what are you looking for in a candidate?

Questions About Campus Housing and Community

  • What are the housing options?
  • What are the fee structures for these different options?
  • Are students required to live on campus ?
  • How does your campus define diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging?

Questions to Ask Your Tour Guide to Gauge Campus Life

  • What surprised you about this school? What's something you didn't expect?
  • What keeps you coming back to this school each year?
  • Have we seen your favorite place on campus?
  • What event on campus gets the biggest turnout every year?
  • If you were struggling with an issue, would you know who to turn to? Who would that be?

Questions About Work and Research Opportunities

  • What are the opportunities for undergraduate research on campus?
  • How do those research opportunities give students valuable hands-on experiences that enhance their resumes?
  • What are some specific ways this school helps students gain hands-on experience through internships ?

Questions About Student and Career Outcomes

  • What is the retention rate from freshman to sophomore year?
  • What is the five-year graduation rate?
  • What is the job-attainment rate of graduates within six months of graduating?
  • What percent of students are going on to graduate school ?
  • What percent of students are intentionally taking time off post-graduation compared to those who are not able to find jobs?
  • What size is the alumni network?
  • How are alumni actively engaging with recent graduates to help connect them specifically to opportunities in their fields?

Searching for a college? Get our  complete rankings  of Best Colleges.

Unique College Campus Visits

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Applying for college has changed. Use these 7 strategies to ace the process

If you’ve never been to college, or your college days are decades behind you, the admissions process can feel overwhelming. I helped my daughter through it myself in 2020 — a lot has changed in the last four years.

The first step to take may seem obvious, but experts say it’s critical: Talk to your child and make sure college is what they want. There are many good reasons for higher education, but “that’s just what’s expected of me” isn’t one of them.

If your child wants to train for a job that requires higher education, expand their earning potential or pursue education for the sake of learning, college may be the right choice. Here’s what to share with your child about getting to the college campus that’s right for them.

1. Start building your list of schools early

The U.S. has more than 2,500 four-year colleges, so making your list can feel overwhelming.

When you start the process early, you have time to do your research and build a list of colleges that are right for you. You won’t have to apply to a few nearby or big-name schools at the last minute.

“A lot of times, students and families will get to October or November of their senior year and say, ‘OK, now I’m going to start.’ That is far too late,” Anne Zinn, a school counselor at Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Conn., and a member of the American School Counselors Association , tells TODAY.

If you don’t have any idea where you want to go, visit some representative schools in your area early in your junior year, if possible. Zinn recommends touring a big school, a medium-sized school and a small school. Mix up the setting, too — maybe choose a city, suburban and rural school.

Your goal is to come up with a short list of schools where you’ll apply. Zinn thinks about seven is the sweet spot:

  • Two reaches, or long shots
  • Two targets, where you’re a good fit
  • Two safety schools
  • One more you want to mix in, just because

2. Get honest about the cost

The cost of some of the most selective U.S. schools will likely top $100,000 a year by the time today’s high school juniors earn their college degrees. You don’t need to be an honor student to figure out that adds up to nearly $400,000 for four years.

“The college value equation is so much more prominent now than it was even ten years ago,” David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer at the National Association for College Admission Counseling tells TODAY. You’ll want to make sure the cost of college is manageable for you and your family and that you’re applying to schools you can afford.

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for grants based on financial need. Schools and governments also use the FAFSA as a basis for scholarships, work-study jobs and loans. Apply as soon as you can on or after October 1 — that’s when applications usually open. It’s a good idea to know which schools you want to apply to by then, so you can include them on your form.

3. Connect with the schools on your list

“The best thing you can do is visit if you can,” Zinn says. Don’t just drive around the campus — make an appointment with the admissions office and take an official tour. Ask questions about things that don’t show up on the website. That might be the food, the social scene or even political issues that could influence your decision.

Of course, you probably can’t visit every school on your list — you might not be able to get to any. There are other ways you can connect with schools. A lot of colleges and universities send admission reps to high schools so that you can meet with them. College fairs are another good option. Be sure to introduce yourself to the representatives — don’t just pick up brochures.

“All of that counts as ‘demonstrated interest.’ They keep track of that,” Zinn says.

4. Find out how much virtual learning to expect

As you’re visiting schools and doing your research, look into how many of your classes are online versus in person. You probably spent a lot of time in remote classrooms during COVID, and you know whether you work well in that environment or you do better face-to-face.

“You don’t want to be lulled into a campus where you think everything is in person, and then you’re taking your English class online in your dorm room, especially if you’re paying thousands of dollars to sit in that dorm room,” Zinn says.

5. Show your true colors in your essay

It’s common to struggle with the essay, and that’s understandable. Schools teach students how to write academic papers for years (“never use ‘I’”), and just when you’re starting to get good at them, you need to write something completely different (“write from your own point of view”).

“The essay is an insight into who you are as a student, the experiences that you’ve had, and the background you come from. The admission counselor wants to see you, your personality and your thought process,” Zinn says. “You want to tell a story and show them something about you they’re not going to see anywhere else in the application. This is your opportunity to really showcase your personality.”

Here are a few tips:

  • Remember that it’s about you. “Even if the questions are scripted, they are looking to glean something from you,” Hawkins says. For example, if you’re responding to a prompt about someone who inspired you, don’t make the essay entirely about that person. Talk about the difference they made in your life.
  • Feel free to talk about your background. Schools can no longer consider race or ethnicity specifically when making admissions decisions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it. “Your racial or ethnic heritage or background has affected your life and has provided you with insights or other qualities,” Hawkins says. “We encourage students to share everything they want to share about themselves.”
  • Let your passion shine through. “Institutions are looking for students who are trying to grow and who have a passion,” Hawkins says. “Share something that makes you tick, feeds your strength and gives you energy.”
  • Be specific. Write about the first time you hit a home run, not about baseball, or the origin of your favorite joke, not about comedy.
  • Set your mind free. Write down your thoughts first without worrying about how they sound. You can rewrite and edit later.

6. See if it makes sense to skip standardized tests

Before COVID, some schools started to make SATs and ACTs optional, and the pandemic accelerated that change. Lately, however, some schools have reinstated the standardized testing requirement.

So, are they really necessary? It depends. You should take them if:

  • You’re applying to a school that requires them. But Zinn and Hawkins say that so far, it’s mainly the most selective schools that require SATs or ACTs. They expect that most other schools will stay test-optional.
  • You feel like you would do well on a standardized test, and it would strengthen your application. Zinn encourages students to take a standardized test at least once and see how they do.
  • Financial aid from the schools you’re applying to, or from your state, is tied to standardized test scores.

Some states also require all students to take a standardized test. The SAT might take the place of a state 11th-grade exam, for example. In that case, the decision is made for you.

7. Make your application as strong as you can

“The best thing you can do is ensure that you have a strong, well-rounded application,” Zinn says. That means keeping your grades up and being involved in a few different activities, such as sports, clubs or work.

Don’t let your college search and your activities take your focus away from your classes. You can spend a lot of time editing your essay, answering practice SAT questions and looking at college life on TikTok. But high school grades, especially grades in college prep classes, top the “most important” list for college admission decisions.

Stephanie Thurrott is a writer who covers mental health, personal growth, wellness, family, food and personal finance, and dabbles in just about any other topic that grabs her attention. When she's not writing, look for her out walking her dog or riding her bike in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. 

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