Though the American undergraduate college admissions process is somewhat complicated, it exposes the applicant to a wide variety of options at over 3,500 colleges and universities. Their potential for academic success, evaluated primarily through their performance in high school, is the most important factor in a college’s decision to admit, waitlist or deny a student’s application for admission. Colleges and universities also take into consideration other elements of an applicant’s background: extracurricular activities, athletic and artistic ability, demonstrated leadership in these activities, non-academic interests such as employment or community service, the student’s character, their writing ability, etc. In some cases, an applicant’s family situation or adversity in their life and how it has been dealt with may be taken into consideration. The importance that an institution assigns to these and other factors will depend on the context in which they appear in the application and on their admissions standards.

Ideally, each student should apply to between 8-10 colleges/universities. The best strategy is to select and submit applications to a variety of schools. The student should apply to a few “reach” schools, which represent the most selective of those to which the student, given their record of academic achievement and extracurricular involvement, may realistically compete for acceptance. They should also apply to schools where their acceptance is a likely possibility, including at least one “safety” school, a college or university at which the chances for admission are very strong and where the student would be eager to attend should their other college applications be denied.

In this college search, students should discuss possible choices with family and peers, review websites (both general sites on finding a college (ex. and the sites of individual  institutions), as well as the materials published by the colleges and universities themselves and commercial guidebooks (such as The Fiske Guide). They should visit colleges and use the resources in their high school’s college guidance office. The student should do the research – only they can ultimately determine where and in what course of study they will be most happy.