Making the Best of College Search Engines

It’s great to have options, but too many choices can be paralyzing. Even programs designed to help you make a decision can lead to more wasted time and spinning wheels. Take, for example, the college search engine. If you go to it looking to make a decision, even to decide which colleges you should include in your “college list,” you’ll likely end up overwhelmed. Instead, try approaching college search programs with the goal of amassing potential college options, rather than whittling them down.

Consider first the sheer number of college search engines. Let’s say that you want to generate a college list based off of your specific criteria. Which engine do you choose? A Google search pulls up Bigfuture, Collegeview, Peterson’s, College Navigator, Cappex, AnyCollege, CollegeData, and Noodle, to start.

What distinguishes these college search programs from one another? Are they basically the same?

It turns out that, while the search criteria remains mostly consistent across search engines, the algorithm that evaluates them varies greatly depending on the search engine. Inputting the same student criteria (SAT scores, GPA, school selectivity, school size, region, potential major) can result in dramatically different outcomes. For example, only 3 of the 8 search engines feature the same school as an ideal match. That means that each of the search engines showed mostly different colleges for the same potential student. Clearly, not all search engines are alike!

If you approach college search engines with the goal of having your perfect college list handed to you without any additional work required on your part, you will likely be disappointed. As helpful as college search engines can be, we shouldn’t depend exclusively on them to give us the be-all-and-end-all list of colleges to look up.

If I shouldn’t use a search engine to create a college list, what good are these dozens of search engines?

The primary purpose of these search engines should be to cast the college net wide and get suggestions for schools that you may not yet have considered. It’s easy to fall into the rut of thinking that you could only see yourself at 12 extremely selective schools. The truth is that there are 3,912 options for college, and it is more than likely that there are other options worth considering. College search engines can help suggest other schools to consider.

So give it a try with several search engines, and gather a list of the “perfect matches” that they recommend. Then, look up the college websites and do some investigating. What majors do they offer? What extra-curriculars could you see yourself participating in? What does campus life look like?

You shouldn’t expect non-human algorithms or ranking systems to take the place of your research into your college options. You are a unique individual, and no search engine should be able to “nail” you perfectly. Don’t worry if one program gives too many “perfect matches.” Your job is not to make any decisions, just to refine your search from 3,912 to a few dozen. Then, your work has just begun!

Here is a quick review of the College Search Engines surveyed, ranked from 1-5 (1 = low recommendation, 5 = high recommendation).

BigFuture: 4
• Pros: Specific search options, as well as ability to search regions of the country.
• Cons: 30+ “perfect match” schools may be a little overwhelming.

CollegeView: 5
• Pros: Can search multiple aspects of one criteria (input multiple regions of country) as well as more subjective elements (liberal vs. conservative, party scene, etc.). Can also see how many of your own criteria lined up with each college.
• Cons: Enhanced search features may reduce college list options.

College Navigator: 2
• Pros: Very quick generation of lists.
• Cons: Very limited in search criteria and in results information.

Cappex: 2
• Pros: Can save colleges to your profile.
• Cons: Must create log-in; can’t search for regions of U.S.; has tuition max at $40,000, which may limit pool of colleges.

Peterson’s: 3
• Pros: Has three-step process for generating list.
• Cons: Very limited in search criteria.

AnyCollege: 2
• Pros: Quick generation of list.
• Cons: No regional selection of U.S. (unless you want to click through every state, and then you can only search for 5 states maximum).

CollegeData: 3
• Pros: Ability to search for student satisfaction and student background.
• Cons: Overly limiting in search- often returns with “no results.”

Noodle: 4
• Pros: Exhaustive search options, including desired workload, clubs and leadership, and music and the arts.
• Cons: Could provide more in-depth analysis on which colleges matched your criteria.


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