05/08/2013 04:08 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

15 Awesome Online and Hard Copy Resources for Finding Colleges You Love

There is probably nothing more important in college admissions than putting together a quality college list. Believe me, that's easier said than done. Right now is the time for juniors to be on this task, but many sophomores (about-to-be-juniors) want to get started as well. Choosing colleges should be a thoughtful process through which students take the time to:

  1. Determine what they want in a college and what information they need to get from colleges
  2. Use college searches to find colleges that match their academic background and personal needs
  3. Read about and research schools identified by college searches to see whether they are good matches, adding some and eliminating others along the way
  4. Research what financial arrangements are available to them from each college

The goal, of course, is to generate a college list filled with colleges you love.

Without taking time to perform this due diligence, college lists are less likely to be all that you want. As the saying goes, "junk in, junk out;" that is, superficial, incorrect input produces superficial, incorrect output. Putting together a good list is filled with challenges. Students and parents often don't know what they need to know, what to do, or where to find answers. And unfortunately, quality information is not in just one place! it's scattered all over the Internet, and in a variety of books and other publications.

In the last few weeks, I have received dozens of requests from people around the country begging me to identify the best, most powerful online and other resources to help them find colleges that are right for them. Here is what I have come up with, with an emphasis on those that are free or low-cost.

Before you get started researching colleges, it's important to have some idea about what you want. Here are some resources that will help you do that:

1. adMission Possible® College Selection Questionnaire
Questions to ask yourself about what you want from college. No charge.

2. Questions to ask yourself from Josh Ritchie, Career Counselor at Borah High School in Boise, Idaho, from the April 17, 2013 NACAC listserv:

  • How do I learn best? Hands on, by example, or reading a book?
  • How hard do I want to work/study?
  • How do I want to spend my free time?
  • How sure am I of my intended major? Does it require graduate school?
  • Do I want to be very involved in campus activities or only focused on classes?
  • Do I want college to help me discover myself or get me where I am going?
  • Do I like to contribute my thoughts and ideas or absorb information?

3. Books that provide step-by-step directions for coming up with good college lists:

  • "Your College List: Finding and Choosing Colleges that You're Going to Love," chapter 5 from adMISSION POSSIBLE® (Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz), Sourcebooks, Inc.
  • "Creating an Initial List of Colleges," chapter 8 from College Admission (Robin Mamlet and Christine Vandevelde), Three Rivers Press


4. College Board's bigfuture, College Search Step-by-Step
No charge.
Beginning with some questions to answer about the kind of colleges, location, campus setting and more, this site offers a great start on developing a college list.

5. Two other very good online college search tools that are popular with students.

  • CollegeMapper, a userfriendly, college search and information website. No charge.
  • Cappex, another really useful college search website. No charge.

6. Naviance College Match
A school-purchased platform and college search program that allows students to compare their grades and test scores with past accepted students at their school. Free to students.

There is so much to learn about colleges, including these special resources

7. Admission Possible® College Statistics: test scores, acceptance rates, student body size, and whether colleges accept The Common Application
Every year, from various sources I gather the latest information about popular colleges in the US and post it on my website. No charge.

8. College Navigator, National Center For Education Statistics
This super-informative website offers up-to-date information about number of faculty and graduate assistants (i.e, who will be your teachers), tuition and other expenses, admissions statistics, race/ethnicity of students, majors offered and numbers of students in each (ergo, what are the popular, possibly oversubscribed majors) and much more for all four-year colleges in the U.S. No charge.

9. College graduation information, from the Chronicle of Higher Education
A website that notes college graduation rates, who doesn't graduate and why it matters. No charge.

10. College Guides that provide really useful, practical information that students need to know.

  • The Fiske Guide to Colleges 2013 (Fiske) and The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, 2013 (Yale Daily News staff) Updated every year, these two books tell about colleges from students' points of view.
  • Colleges That Change Lives (Pope, Oswald) Descriptions of 40 colleges that are particularly student-oriented and produce very accomplished graduates.
  • U. S. News Best Colleges 2013, US News & World Report While I'm not crazy about the rankings, US News offers the latest information about test scores of recent admits and college acceptance rates, very important information in determining whether colleges are in your college ballpark.
11. Online websites that offer subjective current student reviews, photos and videos of colleges and much more.

Financial information should not be something you start thinking about fall semester of your senior year. Begin learning about these issues early in the admissions process.

12. Cappex Scholarships and Financial Aid
Find out what is available in merit scholarships, private scholarships, government and "forgivable" loans, work-study, tuition waivers and more. No charge.

13. The Chronicle of Higher Education (Financial) College Reality Check
Learn how much you will actually pay for different colleges, their on-time graduation rates and what their graduates tend to earn in salaries. No charge.

14. The College Solution
A book and website by Lynn O'Shaughnessy', one of the most knowledgeable financial aid experts in the country. Lynn's blog is free.

15. College Board Net Price Calculator
An excellent website that tells you about "net price" (the difference between the full cost, less any aid you might receive) for every college in the country. No charge.

Don't forget to check in with individual college websites; they, too, are an important source of information. There, you can find information about what majors and minors are available, who the professors are, and the kinds of activities and sports that take place on campus. You can also cross check the information from other resources with that of the colleges'.

As I noted in a recent HuffPost Blog, consulting special people and visiting colleges are also important college list activities.

Good luck with your college list! If you have online or hard copy suggestions you'd like to share with readers, please note them below in the comment section.