Finding the Right Colleges for You: Excerpt and Review

College-bound high school students devote countless hours to building “their lists,” the dozen or so schools to which they will ultimately apply. To get to their magic number, teenagers research and visit schools while, simultaneously, they look inward to see where their credentials and interests are most likely to match college requirements.

There is nothing easy or simple about either of these two tasks.

Hélène Tragos Stelian, author, mentor, and mom of twin high school seniors, has written a thorough new guide, Finding the Right Colleges for You: 7 Steps to Researching & Evaluating Schools That Match Your Needs, that can help students throughout the stressful process. An easy-to-read and comprehensive resource for seniors in the throes of refining their list, Finding the Right Colleges can also support juniors who will soon be lining up at the college admissions starting line.  

She graciously agreed to letting us excerpt Step 4, a chapter from the middle of the book, where she suggests an array of techniques and provides numerous online resources that can support  a teen laboring over his college list.



Now that you have a good picture of how the college presents itself online, it’s time to find out if other media outlets agree. Schools develop their sales materials to cast themselves in the most positive light. Still, no school is perfect, so it pays to look at more objective information when doing your research.

Check out the suggestions below. Keep in mind individual assessments will be subjective: Ignore disgruntled outliers and data based on few respondents. Focus on information consistent across sources. Assuming you don’t uncover a deal-breaker that takes a school off your list, make note of follow-up questions stemming from your research.


Read their 2-3 page descriptions and see how well they match what you’ve been reading on the colleges’ websites:

Best Colleges 2015 by US News & World Report

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges
by Loren Pope

The Complete Book of Colleges, 2016 Edition (College Admissions Guides) by Princeton Review

Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different (Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, & Just Plain Different)by Donald Asher

Profiles of American Colleges 2016 (Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges) by Barron’s

The Best 380 Colleges, 2016 Edition (College Admissions Guides) by Princeton Review

College Handbook 2016 by The College Board

Fiske Guide to Colleges 2016 by Edward Fiske

The Hidden Ivies, 2nd Edition: 50 Top Colleges from Amherst to Williams That Rival the Ivy League (Greene’s Guides) by Howard Greene and Matthew W. Greene

The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, 2015: Students on Campus Tell You What You Really Want to Know, 41st Edition by Yale Daily News

The Ultimate Guide to America’s Best Colleges 2016 by Gen and Kelly Tanabe


“NAME OF COLLEGE” to see what comes up – any stories in the news?

“NAME OF CITY WHERE COLLEGE IS LOCATED newspapers” to find out more about area news (also, search within each newspaper’s online website for the name of the college to read about any interactions or issues between the community and the college)

“NAME OF COLLEGE chat room” to see if you can chat with current students

“NAME OF COLLEGE student blog” to read blogs written by current students

“NAME OF COLLEGE virtual tour” to watch video tours

“NAME OF COLLEGE common data set” for loads of statistics


Pay particular attention to unofficial information (not produced by the school)

eCampusTours and Youniversitytv for virtual tours

Facebook for college and student pages

Niche Social for student reviews of many aspects of college life

Rate My Professors for student ratings of professors at colleges nationwide

Students Review for unbiased reviews of schools from students

Unigo for photos, videos, and comments submitted by students

YouTube for videos

Check out schools on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE):

Not all schools participate, but for those that do, the results of these independent student surveys can be eye-opening.

Look for your schools on College Week Live:

This site features live chats with current students or admissions reps as well as special chats focused on topics relevant to you (e.g. first-generation students).

Check each school’s safety record:

The US Department of Education provides invaluable information about campus safety and security on campus via this site.

Get informed about each school’s endowment:

A sizeable endowment is a sign of a school’s financial health. It demonstrates a track record of fundraising, including alumni commitment to giving. It allows the school to recruit talented faculty, maintain its infrastructure and build new facilities, fund new programs and research, and provide sizeable financial aid. This is particularly important for private colleges that are not subsidized by state tax dollars.

Check out what each college has to say on their website but don’t limit yourself to that. Conduct some online searches “NAME OF COLLEGE endowment” to see what you can dig up that’s current.

If you’re comparing schools, one additional data point you may wish to calculate is the per student endowment, meaning total endowment $ divided by total number of students.

The National Association of College and University Business Officers puts out data on college endowments that is also worth a look.


Your high school college counselor should be able to offer valuable input and advice on the schools you are considering. He or she will likely have insights from years of meeting college admissions representatives and may know some specifics related to your colleges of interest, which may help you decide if the fit is right. Of course, if you’re working with an independent college counselor, take advantage of that additional resource as well.


Pay attention to the following and decide if you’re keeping each school on the list:

Does the school meet most of your criteria, at least the important ones, based on everything you’ve read?

How well are you positioned for admission, based on the school’s statistics and, if available, your high school’s Naviance scattergram?

If a school is clearly not meeting your criteria or clearly out of your league, it’s time to take it off your list. For colleges that still qualify, it’s time to move on to STEP 5, connecting with each school locally. 

HTStelian-headshotHélène Tragos Stelian is a mentor, author, blogger, and mom. She mentors under-resourced Chicago teens through the college admissions process and is (barely) surviving the journey with her twin high school seniors as well.

She has put her experience, organization, research savvy, and planning skills to good use in her books:
Finding the Right Colleges for You: 7 Steps to Researching & Evaluating Schools That Match Your Needs
In her blog, Next Act for Women, she shares stories of women who have reinvented themselves in midlife and provides resources for those on similar journeys. In addition, she writes about midlife, women, and parenting for other sites, including the Huffington Post.

Connect with Hélène on Facebook and Twitter.

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