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Last updated May 15, 2023

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How to Research Colleges: 4 Factors to Look For

Key Takeaway

When you research colleges, all the information can be overwhelming. To keep yourself on track, focus on admissions statistics, major information, average outcomes, and student resources.

If you’re planning on applying to college, then you know just how tricky it is to pick out schools to apply to.

There are so many options that it’s hard to know where to start. And once you start, how do you know what to research?

You could spend days researching each school on your list, so here are four of the most important things to look for when you research colleges.

Average Statistics of Admitted Students

Colleges list the average statistics of admitted students on their websites, usually somewhere off of the admissions homepage. You can typically find this information by searching for a school’s admissions data or “first year profile.” (Here’s UC Berkley’s, for example.)

So why do these stats matter?

Because they give you an idea of where you sit in relation to the other students applying and being accepted to a particular school.

And why is that important?

Because it gives you an idea of how likely you are to be admitted.

Whether we like it or not, hard data like GPA, standardized test scores, and number of AP (or other rigorous) classes impacts your consideration for admission—especially at schools with lower acceptance rates.

If your stats are under the average for a school, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t apply there.

But it does mean that that school is a “reach” school for you, meaning that it’d be a stretch to assume that you’d be admitted. Your chances are unlikely, so you shouldn’t count on that option working out.

If your statistics are well above average, then you might be able to count that school as a “safety”—a school to which you would likely be admitted. This is especially the case for schools with acceptance rates above 80%.

This information empowers you to build a realistic school list that will maximize your chances of going to a college that you actually want to go to.

(See our guide to building a school list for more about reach, target, and safety schools.)

Major-Specific Acceptance Rates & Statistics

But wait! Sadly, looking at admission statistics for an entire university may not be enough.

You might also have to look at admission statistics for specific majors.

Sometimes students are admitted to a college as a whole, but other times they are admitted directly to a specific major.

So as you’re building your school list, be sure to look into whether or not you are required to apply directly to your desired major.

If so, you’ll need to take major-specific acceptance rates and statistics into account.

Taking the time to look at this additional information is particularly important if you’re applying to competitive majors like computer science or engineering.

Just because you are a competitive applicant for the school as a whole doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll also be competitive for a specific major.

Looking at these metrics can help you determine your chances of being admitted to your desired major, so you’ll know where to focus your application energy.

Graduation and Career Outcomes

You’re going to school to get a degree, right? So your college should obviously have your major.

But you’re not getting a degree just to get a degree. You’re getting a degree that will help you get a job.

Whether you’re interested in going to graduate school, doing a fellowship, or starting a job right after college, it’s important to look at post-grad outcomes.

These outcomes can include factors like:

  • Job placement rate
  • Average starting salary
  • Graduate school acceptance rate
  • Placement rates for prestigious fellowships (like Fulbright and Watson)

Typically, data are collected for where students are at six months to a year after graduation, so you get an idea of how students are doing right after they graduate.

You can also look at other statistics like four-year graduation rate, which tells you what percentage of students finish their degree in four years.

This information can be crucial for finding good options, especially for your safety and target schools. Good post-grad outcomes indicate that students receive good preparation, advising, and access to professional networks. You want your school to do all of those things.

Student Resources

We know that different schools typically have different kinds of resources. They also have different levels of access to them.

The specific resources available, and the culture around using them, can vary drastically from institution to institution.

If a school has excellent mental health resources but students can’t easily access them because they’re all booked up, then are the resources actually that good? If there’s a writing center but students are afraid to use it, then is it really a selling feature?

Doing a deep dive on student resources is important because you need to know what a school offers. You also need to know how accessible the resources are, how students feel about them, and what kind of agency students have in advocating for their needs.

Also look into what kinds of resources are available off campus. If you’ll need greater mental health or healthcare services than are available on campus, would you be able to access them off campus? If you want to get an internship while you’re taking classes, are there places nearby that you could apply to?

Having this knowledge under your belt can a) help you narrow down your list and b) ensure that you end up at a school that can fully meet your needs.


Remember to research these categories as you build your school list. Read our school list building guide for more tips about how to build the perfect list for you.

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