Searching for Colleges? It's Like Buying a Couch

Tips for the college search include be willing to be clueless at the start, make as many visits as possible, ask lots of questions, keep an open mind, and more.
Student searching for colleges

For many years, I'd been quite content with my oversized, 10-year-old couch.  And it wasn't just me that was happy with it - my 125-pound hound dog spent most of his day sprawled out on this couch.

It wasn't until the "intruder" arrived that we were forced to reconsider this couch. The "intruder" - otherwise known as my girlfriend (and now wife and mother of my two children) - agreed to move in with me (and said hound dog) on one condition - I buy a new couch.

This brought me to a place and a process that I'd never experienced before - the furniture store. I walked into the first one, a bit wary, and I was immediately accosted by a salesperson.

"What are you here for today?" he asked.

"Um, a couch?" I said, not expecting to have to explain myself so quickly.

"Well, what kind of couch?" he asked.

I stared back at him blankly. There are types of couches? Well, I guess I knew that, but how was I supposed to know the different types? And how was I to know which type I'd prefer?

I'd gone to this furniture store hoping for some divine intervention, to somehow find and fall into the perfect couch. But there, at the front door, I was asked a simple question - what kind of couch? - to which I didn't even know the possible answers. And there would be so many follow-up questions that I'd never even considered. Size? Fabric? Color? Design?

A few weeks later, I visited my eighth furniture store and the salesperson asked, "so what are you here for today?" This time, I had an answer.

"A couch - chaise reversible, seventy-four inches, gray corduroy, piping with an extra cushion."

Why did I suddenly know how to respond?

I finally knew the answer because I'd been willing at the beginning to admit my own cluelessness, to ask lots of questions, to listen to answers, to have an open mind, and to, well, sit on lots of couches. I needed to learn about all the options and, at the same time, I needed to learn about myself.

I fear that when students first start the college search process, we ask them too many questions - questions to which we expect them to have answers.

But, the reality is, they've never picked a college before. How should they be expected to know the answers to all these questions -- size of school, distance from home, intended area of study, on-campus or off-campus housing -- until they've gone out, conducted several college visits, and really learned of the varieties of college experiences available?

This is why it's so important for high school students to do just what I did when they start the college search process:

  • Be willing to be clueless at the start: Go into the process recognizing that you don't know much about college
  • Make as many visits as possible: The more you go, the more you'll notice and learn what you like and what you don't
  • Ask lots of questions: Talk to current college students, admissions representatives, and anyone else willing to share their knowledge of a school
  • Listen to the answers: Pay attention to not only their knowledge, but their enthusiasm level and tone as they speak about their experience
  • Keep an open mind: You might find that you love a smaller school, for example, when you initially thought you would end up on a large campus
  • Keep sitting on couches! Research, visit, and reflect as much as possible

There's not likely to be a lightning bolt moment when suddenly a student just knows everything he or she needs to know about selecting a school. But researching and visiting colleges is a skill, and the more you do it, the better you get at it. Each time a student learns about a college and makes a visit, the student builds up a working knowledge base and gathers more points of comparison.

With a little practice and persistence, students can get to that point when yet another person asks them what kind of college they're looking for - and they'll surprise everyone by having the exact answer.

Learn more about searching for colleges