What are your search terms?

So you want to go to college. Great!

But where? There are literally thousands of accredited, non-profit, degree-awarding four-year schools to choose from in the U.S. How do you begin to narrow down the list from 2,000 to 20, and then to 10, and then to one? What are your search terms that help you eliminate the ones you don't want and highlight the ones you do? (If it helps to visualize, imagine you're in one of those old Auto Trader commercials, only searching for colleges instead of cars.)

So what are your first search terms? Some of the most popular are actually pretty useless.

Many students begin with "I want to go to a good college." That makes sense, except it doesn't actually eliminate many. What do you mean by good? Good for who? And who decided they're good? You have to know what "good" means for you before you can start searching for "good" schools. What most students mean when they say "a good college" is a college that is relatively well-known. They often feel this way because of social pressure. While there's nothing wrong with this search term or feeling social pressure, you should probably have other search terms, and the others should probably be more important. Look over the Five Foundations for a longer talk about the pressure to go to a "good" school.

Another popular first search term is "I want to go to a college I can afford." But starting with the price tag is not a great way to start, because at most colleges, most students do not pay the full price. While you can get an estimate of how much you might pay here, the fact is that most colleges won't tell you how much they expect you to pay them until after you've been accepted. So you have to apply first, and then decide if you can afford it later.

Some people like to talk about a school's R.O.I., or Return on Investment. The R.O.I. is the earnings of that school's graduates compared to the cost of the school. A slightly more expensive university might be a good deal if you can earn a lot more after you graduate. But here's the thing: how much money you make correlates much more strongly to what you major in than it does to where you go to college. If it's future earnings that are most important to you, then spend time choosing your major and career path, not looking up the R.O.I. stats for different schools.

So then how do you choose? If you're treating it like a relationship, then you're thinking about what's actually important to you. For example, I met a girl who is interested in majoring in biology. Her top two choices are Duke and Notre Dame. There are lots of schools with strong science programs, but she wants to be at a place with a lot of school spirit, and that's how those two made it to the top of her list. "School Spirit" may not be one of your search terms, but it was a very effective and efficient one for her.

Listed below are number of statements. Consider how true these statements are for you. None of these should be the sole consideration, but once you start thinking about your search like the search for a good relationship, then these seemingly small things really matter a lot.

I want a low professor/student ratio, even in my first two years.

I want to spend time talking with professors outside of class.

I want to get started on academic research soon, not just as a senior or grad student.

I want to go to large sporting events at school.

I want to get through college as soon as possible and get started working.

I’m pretty sure I want to go to graduate school or professional school soon after graduating.

I want to be involved in student clubs and organizations.

I’m interested in joining a sorority or fraternity.

I’m very interested in studying abroad for at least one semester.

I want my college to have a strong fine arts program, even if I’m not an art major.

I’m comfortable with taking out student loans if it means getting to the school I think is best for me.

I plan to work while I’m at school to help pay for tuition.

I’m interested in taking classes outside of my major.

I think of college mostly as an exploration of the mind.

I think of college mostly as career training.

I think of college mostly as a way to build social bonds.

I think of college mostly as a way to build job contacts.

Honestly, I’m not all that interested in college, but it’s something I know I should do.

It’s important that I be in or near a big city.

It’s important to me that I have a car while at college.

It’s important to me that my college is ethnically, geographically, and/or socio-economically diverse.

I’m not in a hurry to declare a major—I want to explore.

It’s important to me that I feel nurtured.

I have special needs or circumstances that a school will need to know about immediately.

I have people I can talk to regularly about making decisions.

Having nice amenities and living conditions is important to me.