Students’ Top 5 Sources for Comparing Colleges

Students’ Top 5 Sources for Comparing Colleges
portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
By Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

Published on May 6, 2021

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With more college programs than ever to choose from, your efforts to research and compare them may feel overwhelming at first. Information is widely available, but finding reliable sources is critical to making smart decisions about your college education.

Every year, BestColleges surveys online students to find out how they made their college decisions. In 2020, 1,800 students — including 500 traditional college students studying remotely at the time of the survey due to the COVID-19 pandemic — shared how they used various sources of information in their college searches.

One of the questions we asked was "What source of information did you rely on most when comparing programs?" The top five answers are listed here and can be used as a guide to give you a clearer sense of how you can identify the best college matches for you.

Top 5 Sources Students Use to Research Colleges

1. College Websites

From tuition and course lists to student testimonials and descriptions of student life, college websites are a great place to begin your research. As the top source for comparing colleges in our survey, school sites commonly serve as a central hub of information and communication for prospective students.

When browsing these sites, you can focus on what it would be like to be a college student there. For example, you might explore the list of classes required for your intended major, find out how students get tickets to football games, or search for scholarship opportunities.

Some sites are more detailed and organized than others. If you don't find what you're looking for, you can prepare a list of questions to ask school representatives (see item No. 3 on this list).

2. Online Student Reviews

Have you ever looked at reviews or ratings before making a major purchase? College is certainly a major purchase, and many of our surveyed students said they rely on reviews of schools and academic programs. Several websites, such as GradReports and Unigo, publish student feedback on everything from academics to campus safety.

Reviews can provide an additional perspective to your research, but are these sites reliable? A closer look at professor ratings websites found that these kinds of reviews can be affected by student gender and racial bias. They're also subjective and often emphasize student satisfaction more than academic quality.

Feel free to add review sites to your research efforts, but be sure to include other sources, too.

3. Direct Contact With Schools

Many students prefer to directly reach out to the colleges they're interested in. The easiest way to connect with people on campus is through the college's website. Online contact forms and live chat functions are readily accessible, as well as phone directories that include contact information for admissions and financial aid departments.

It's helpful to put together a list of questions before you make that first phone call or fill out that form. After reviewing a school's website (see item No. 1 above), you can identify your priorities and concerns to help you stay organized in your college search.

Essential questions for admissions advisors include "What are the most important admission factors?" and "How can prospective students make their applications stand out?" Add questions about anything that's specifically important to you that you couldn't find the answers to online.

4. Students and Alumni

Online review sites can be helpful, but actually speaking with students who are enrolled in, or who have recently graduated from, the programs you're considering can be even more useful. Many schools facilitate opportunities to form these connections through ambassador programs, such as the University of Michigan's Residential College Ambassadors program and the University of Houston Ambassadors.

You can also seek out networking opportunities through alumni groups or clubs in your area. These organizations provide access to firsthand sources of information and advice.

Not sure what to ask students and alumni? Colorado State University's Office of Admissions offers a list of questions prospective students often ask the school's current student ambassadors on subjects such as student diversity, housing options, and campus life.

5. Social Media

Although most students in our survey don't rely primarily on social media for their college research, these platforms can provide information about topics that are important to you but harder to find in other ways.

You can follow school accounts on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram to learn more about a college's culture and campus life. Some schools also offer virtual tours and live question-and-answer sessions via social media.

Social media also allows colleges to learn more about you and your interests. You can make the most of your social accounts by sharing activities you're involved in, such as community service, as an extension of your college application. Some schools screen applicants' social presence, so take time to review your feeds for content that might be perceived negatively.

Compare Multiple Sources of College Information

Year after year, our annual BestColleges survey of online students shows that graduates wish they had compared more programs before they enrolled. If you have the option to consider more than one school or program, do your due diligence and review information from a variety of sources to find the best fit for you.


Feature Image: Yagi Studio / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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