Best College Search Websites: How to Use a Search Tool to Build Your College List

College search websites can help you sort through all the thousands of schools that are out there to figure out which one is the best fit for you. And that’s important because…

There are a lot of colleges out there.

4,140 to be exact. (And that’s just in the United States.) Are you interested in a Liberal Arts college? Well, there are about 200 of those. What about a Liberal Arts college in New England with a Visual and Performing Arts program? There are 24. Public colleges in the Midwest with a Division I football team? 25.

We got those numbers using Smart Class, a college search website. More about that later.

The point is, researching colleges is an essential piece of your college admissions puzzle. This process will help you envision where you’ll ultimately go to college. And it’s really fun. For an eager college-bound high school student, browsing a college search websites like Smart Class is like vacationing on Google Earth. It can give you a bird’s eye view of where you might want to go before actually visiting.

We compiled the best college search websites and tools for college research and building a college list. But before you travel the virtual world of college campuses, consider these ways to filter your search:

Filter Your College Search For Your Chances of Getting In

Below are criteria to help you figure out your chances of getting into a given college. You’ll need to compare the data points from each college with your own qualifications. College Simply, listed later in this article, is a great tool for searching colleges by these data points.

1. Average GPA of Admitted Students

Your GPA is one of the most important parts of your admissions profile. Admissions officers really care about your grades. For that reason, juniors and seniors should loosely restrict their college searches by the average GPA of admitted students. Filtering colleges by average GPA within one point of your own is a good rule of thumb.

Keep in mind, not all GPAs are the same. You’ll want to learn your weighted versus unweighted GPA.

2. Average SAT or ACT Score of Admitted Students

Like GPA, average SAT and ACT score is an objective measurement to help colleges qualify candidates. Unlike GPA, test scores can be significantly improved in a relatively short amount of time. (That’s what we do here at Testive. You can learn how we do it here.) You should restrict your college search by this data point, but remember that it likely isn’t too late to improve test scores.

3. Acceptance Rates

The acceptance rate of a given college is the percentage of applicants admitted the previous year. It’s a broad indicator of how selective a college is, and worth considering in your college search. But it can be tricky. The New York Times notes that if your SAT or ACT score is close to that of a given college, acceptance rate can be an irrelevant data point.

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Filter Your College Search For “Fit”

What is “fit”? It’s an amalgamation of things like location, size, academics, culture, extracurriculars and more, that make a college just right for you. Sound inexact? Well, it is. The best way to determine “fit” is to step foot on campus and get a feel for the college. But you can narrow down your list of colleges by using the following characteristics to predict “fit”.

1. Location

Most college search websites provide a filter by location – whether region, state, or city. Tools like The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard let you filter by proximity to your zip code.

2. Focus / Type

Some college search websites, like Smart Class, allow you to filter by college “focus” or “type”. Examples of college “focuses” or “types” include Liberal Arts colleges, research colleges and religious colleges. These categories often go hand in hand with other characteristics that determine “fit”, like academic programs and size.

3. Size

Size of undergraduate student body certainly contributes to the college experience, and should be considered in your college search. While some students prefer a small college where they will get to know their peers and professors, other may want the resources of a large university.

4. Academic Programs

Academic focus is a great way to narrow down a college list. For students who have chosen a specific area of study, researching academic programs profiled in US News and World Report is a good start.

Another approach to researching colleges based on academic programs is simply searching Google. (Pretty basic, right?) If you’re interested in film for example, just search “best film schools” to get ideas for further research.

5. Activities and Extracurriculars

Want to join a college debate team? What about intramural hockey? Or a college with a prominent chapter of the national business fraternity? Your activities outside of the classroom will play a huge role in your college experience. However, filtering for activities you want to pursue is difficult, because there are so many activities to choose from. The best way to discover things to do outside of class is to visit college websites or talk to a current students or alumni.

Filter Your College Search For Cost

When compiling a list of target colleges, cost can be the most important consideration. At a basic level, the cost of a college is made up of tuition, the availability of financial aid related to your financial need, and scholarships. For a surface-level analysis of target colleges within budget, you can filter for the following data points:


All of the college search tools listed below provide filters for tuition. A major contributing factor to tuition for public schools is, of course, whether you’re child lives in-state or out-of-state. You can use the College Board website to filter for in-state tuition.

Availability of Financial Aid

The College Board and US News and World Report provide data that indicates a college’s capacity to give financial aid. Data points include the percentage of students who receive need-based financial aid and the average percent of need met. However, your financial award will depend on your financial need. You can use a Financial Aid Calculator to get a better estimate of financial aid availability.

The Best College Search Websites

Listed below are the four best college search websites to start your college list.


Best for discovering new colleges to add to your list

With an easy-to-use interface and high-level filters, SmartClass is the perfect tool to kick off your college search. You can search for colleges by things like geographical region, institution size, college degrees, institution focus, sports teams, and more.

Smart Class

College Board

Best for filtering for cost

The College Board, the non-profit company that produces the SAT, PSAT and AP, provides a college search tool as a part of its suite of admissions tools. Among other filters, College Board’s College Search allows students to fitler for cost with three criteria: percentage of financial need a school can meet, tuition, and work study programs.

College Board Search Tool

College Simply

Best for filtering for test scores

College Simply is a great tool to filter your college search by SAT or ACT score. If you already have a handful of colleges in mind, College Simply will use your scores to predict your chances of acceptance to each.

College Simply also provides an in-depth look at your chances of getting into a particular college based on past applications via CollegeData. Enter your test scores and GPA to see where your candidacy lands on a scattergram of past applicants.


US News and World Report

Best for filtering for academics

US News and World Report, famous for its college rankings, provides a college search tool with the most comprehensive information on colleges’ academic programs. (Although, for a detailed understanding of a college’s academic programs, we recommend visiting their website and/or visiting.)

This college search tool provides data on faculty and class size, majors offered, and graduation rates. You’ll need to purchase College Compass for $29.95 to access an expanded profile that includes more detailed data on academics.

US News and World Report

Remember, You Aren’t Defined by Search Filters

Don’t be discouraged if your search results exclude your favorite school. These college search websites are a good resource for researching colleges, but they can’t really predict your chances of getting in. There are many characteristics admissions officers consider beyond test scores and GPA, especially at smaller colleges with more holistic admissions processes. College search websites are best used to begin your college search or answer basic questions about colleges.

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By |2018-08-01T17:24:52+00:00February 21st, 2017|Admissions|

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