Navigating the College Search Beyond Rankings

The Princeton Review just released its annual College Rankings Lists. Their 62 categories cover everything from "Best Value" to "Top Party Schools." When it comes to doing your own college research, there are many factors to consider.

However, before you dig into those online lists, it is critical to identify your priorities. Once you know more about your preferences, you can start narrowing down the list of schools -- from the 4,000-plus accredited institutions in America!

In my new book, B+ Grades, A+ College Application, I go through the preliminary steps of putting together that list. Here are a few hints to get you started:

1) Use search engine databases

Online college resources such as search engine databases and online reviews are not only easy to access, but also very up-to-date. Search engine databases allow you input your priorities and generate a list of colleges that fit your criteria. While databases may list schools you have never heard of, don't be afraid to broaden your horizons. These databases they can tell you important things about a school that may add some new colleges to your list -- or simply allow you to more effectively assess institutions you already had in mind. I personally recommend the College Search option on the College Board website. For a more subjective search (i.e., if you want a LGBT-friendly environment) I suggest the Super Match search engine on the College Confidential website.

2) Read online student reviews

Now that you have a running list of schools based on your priorities, reading reviews and comments from actual students can help you get a sense of campus culture. You may have already perused the recent Princeton Review Rankings of the 378 best colleges released earlier this week. This guide is very robust and is based on more than 100,000 different student reviews and perspectives. Other student review sites include College Prowler and College Confidential, which offer students (and parents!) the chance to share their experiences and impressions. While these may be helpful resources, I do not suggest choosing or eliminating colleges solely on student reviews (especially negative ones). If possible, once you have narrowed down your list, it is worth visiting the campus so that you can form an impression with your own two eyes.

3) Reference college rankings

Like Princeton Review, U.S. News and World Report also releases annual college rankings that rely on variables such as selectivity, financial aid, and alumni-giving rates. When narrowing down your schools, I would take these rankings with a grain of salt. While college rankings can help you put together a college list, these rankings are most helpful in getting a sense of the where your college fall in terms of overall prestige (if that is important to you). Regardless, no college rankings can definitively measure the quality of a college or the education it provides.

4) Network with strangers

Chances are that you've seen people in your hometown sporting collegiate T-shirts or other memorabilia. If you see a particular bumper sticker from a college that interests you over and over, do yourself a favor and network! There's a good chance this person may be happy to share his or her experiences with you. If approaching strangers doesn't strike your fancy, don't hesitate to ask your teachers and guidance counselors if they know other students from your school who are enrolled in colleges that interest you. Keep an eye on gathering "insider information" to make well-informed decisions.