Overcoming College Search Roadblocks

College Search Starter Kit: Post 5

“For most students the college search process is a long, challenging, and oftentimes confusing ordeal; so there are bound to be moments along the way when they feel lost, overwhelmed or panicked. And this can be especially true if they are trying to make a wise college investment without knowing exactly what they want in life, or do know what they want, but are struggling to find schools that they feel can help fulfill that vision. The good news is, though it can take a little extra time and effort, I’ve yet to have a student get to their final decision without a list of schools they were excited about – and I’m positive the same can be true for any student that is focused on more than the next four-years, and willing to be strategic about their search and decision. Let’s talk about how uncertain students can still make a wise college investment, and how to breath new life into a stalled college search…

Okay, so I normally start my posts with a little lead-in story, but if you’re reading this particular article it’s probably because you’re struggling to begin (or continue) your college search because you’re either uncertain about what you want in life, or know what you want, but are struggling to find schools you feel can help fulfill that vision…so let’s get right into the post and try to breathe some new life into your college search. 

Specifically, let’s talk about the three things I would look for if I were a college-bound student trying to make a wise college investment without knowing exactly what I want in the future; then five strategies for getting unstuck when your college search process isn’t producing the results you’re hoping for.

Now, as always, before we dive into the heart of today’s post I need to remind you that if you came to this article directly I strongly encourage you to go back and read the previous four posts in the College Search Starter Kit series. In those posts I reveal my college search philosophy; then discuss (in detail) what I consider to be the three most critical aims every college search process should strive for. 

Why should every college search strive to achieve these aims? 

Because in my opinion these aims can not only transform a traditional college search process into a modern search process designed to produce results aligned to the realities of today’s professional and financial realities, but also because if you don’t achieve these aims you run the risk of reducing the value of your college degree before stepping foot in your first classroom! In short, a robust college search can help ensure you graduate with the flexibility and skills you need to pursue your ideal life; including the ability to make difficult decisions in an uncertain world.

Alright…let’s leave the aims behind for this post and talk about the three things I would look for in a school if I was making a college decision while uncertain about what I wanted my longer term future to look like.

Uncertain Students
How can an uncertain college-bound student still make a decision that will position himself or herself for long-term success? 

The truth is, there is no way any of us, even the most certain of college-bound students, can know for sure where our lives will lead or that we will meet with success. We can only put ourselves in positions where success and happiness are more probable. And that’s good news if you are an uncertain student; it means your aren’t really that far behind anyone else. 

After all, what is a certain student really? In this case it’s just a student that has a pretty strong feeling about what they want their life to look like after college. But the reality is, apart from a few very restrictive professions and perhaps a few other life situations (like a very specific graduate school program), there are typically many routes to most post-college situations…not to mention the option for graduate school. So to keep pace with your more certain peers you typically just need to perform well in school and ensure you leave as many doors open as possible until you figure things out, which could even be sometime post-college (and that’s okay!).

So if I were a college-bound student who was uncertain about what I wanted in the future, I would probably seek a college experience that offers three characteristics quality, support and flexibility – and I mean flexibility both during college and with respect to my post-college positioning in the world.

In other words, I would want a quality education, and not just in terms of reputation, but also in terms of the skills I develop, the people I interact with, and the opportunities I will be given. I would also want a school with a robust student and alumni support network, including accessible and interested professors, an active alumni network and a robust career department. Finally, I would want flexibility; meaning a university that offers a variety of quality academic programs, isn’t punitive on program transfers, has strong internship relationships, and wouldn’t leave me so horrendously in debt or uni-dimensional that I couldn’t continue my self-exploration after college if I happen to graduate still uncertain.  

So let me quickly share my thoughts on a few of these factors in detail:

Program Alternatives:

The ideal situation is that you are at least able to narrow things down to a few areas of potential study even if you don’t know what you will do when you finish the degree. That way you can find schools that offer programs in those areas, but also solid programs in some of the more general/common subject areas (i.e. Business, Mathematics, the Sciences, or Computer-based majors) as a safety net. You’ll also need to make sure the university allows for program transfers. Basically, you need to think carefully before you choose to attend a school with limited quality degree options, like I did when I chose a highly specialized Psychology school for graduate studies with little else to offer, even if they offer a really strong program in one of your areas of surface interest. If you are uncertain, you are going to want the wiggle room to explore through trial and error.

Personal Attention:

This isn’t meant to be an assault on large schools, many provide a great level of personal attention, but as an uncertain student it’s probably wise to attend a school with an outstanding student support network. This can be via small class sizes, accessible professors, a robust career center, a good mentorship program, and/or a lively alumni network. Figuring out what you want is going to take a lot of independent analysis, but may also require a lot of discussion and guidance. So if you are an uncertain student it’s advisable to spend as much time looking at the schools’ support networks as the other factors.

Low Debt:

I’m a huge fan of this for all students, but especially for those that are still uncertain about their direction. The reality is, there’s a chance you may come out of college still uncertain, and that wouldn’t make you an exception. This is where a low debt load can help afford you the opportunity to continue to explore the world and its many options after graduation. If you can combine a quality, multi-purpose degree with little to no student loan debt; well, that’s a pretty powerful combination when it comes to finding or pursuing your ideal life after college!

Alumni Network:

This runs somewhat parallel to the points on personal attention and program alternatives, but for an uncertain student a lively alumni network can be a huge perk. Where there is a lively alumni network there is typically easy access to alumni sponsored events, speakers, mentors and networking opportunities. This can be invaluable in terms of learning about different careers and eventually landing a first job or internship. It can also be a major asset down the line if you lose your job, are looking for a new job, or attempting to change professions.


A friend’s father once told me, “A good person finds a good job no matter where they are.” To this day I believe there is a lot of truth to that, but there is also something to be said for probability. If you are an uncertain student, it may be a good idea to put yourself in proximity to a major city. That doesn’t mean you have to be in the city, or even the direct suburbs, but having access to a major hub should provide you with the opportunity to gain exposure to a wide range of ideas, professions and people. Similar to not getting too specialized with your program choice if you are highly uncertain, you will likely want to avoid going to a highly specialized area of the country unless you are certain you will be comfortable moving away from your new friends if the area doesn’t turn out to have anything for you on offer. 

So rather than specializing in these areas, I typically recommend uncertain students take a different approach…start general with the degree program and/or location; then use things like elective courses, internships and co-ops to explore potential areas/locations of interest.

Program of Study:

As a general rule I don’t recommend courses of study for students I don’t know. This is a highly personal choice. But there are a few general areas of study that tend to be pretty well-received on a broad basis – at least in the corporate world. I mentioned a few off the top of my head in the section on Program Alternatives.   By no means am I saying you should absolutely study one of these if you fall into the category of uncertain student, but it may not be a bad idea to attend a school that maintains a solid program in at least one of these areas as a safety.

The overarching message I want to make with this part of the post is this. If you are an uncertain student:

1. You aren’t necessarily behind your more certain classmates.

2. You can still make a wise college investment that puts you in a position for future success.

3. A good starting place is to look for schools that offer a quality education, across multiple degree programs, with a lot of general (but well-received) options, and robust student/alumni support.

4. Investing time in finding the best bargain can really pay off if you need to continue your career/life search after college.

5. Don’t panic. The world can be fairly fluid in terms of courses of study. Your chosen degree may make landing that first job in a given field more difficult, or even require you take a few evening classes or attend graduate school to get your foot in the door, but with each passing day it becomes much more about your network and professional performance than your
undergraduate degree.

But what if you aren’t uncertain, you’re search just seems to have stalled out a bit?  Let’s talk about five ways to get your search back on track…

Getting Unstuck
Now what can you do if you already know what you want, but are just a little stuck with the college search process? In other words, what if you aren’t finding schools that get you excited about your future – or schools that will work with the realities of your situation (e.g. will require back-breaking debt to attend)?

Here are five ideas to help you shake things up and hopefully get your search back on track:

Stop Searching: 
I once heard the worst thing a person can do while unemployed is sit around all day looking for jobs – and I think the college search is a bit like that. When you are feeling stuck, sitting in front of the computer researching school after school (or even the same few schools over and over) can be a bit like trying to get into the next room by repeatedly walking into the wall.  Sometimes we need to step back and take a breath in order to realize a door has been there all along.

So my first recommendation for students when they are feeling stuck, assuming they aren’t right up against an application or decision deadline, is to take a day or two off and just stop thinking about their college search altogether. Now, some people’s first reaction to this recommendation is, “No Way! How can I make a wise investment without thinking about it? “

It’s a fair point, you obviously DO have to think about it, but have you ever gone to bed at night with a problem and woken up with a solution? That’s because our brain continues to work on our problems even when we aren’t instructing it to. So I believe sometimes we just need to slow the input process a little bit to create enough space for a valuable output to arise!

Revisit Your Self-Analysis:
First of all, if you didn’t begin your search with an in-depth self-analysis then you’ve probably already found your problem. You should go do that now! There are hundreds of colleges in the USA alone, and the chances of finding a handful that truly represent a wise personal investment through blind sampling is fairly small.

If you’re unsure how to go back and perform a self-analysis, a good way to start is to jot down the five pillars (academic, social, financial, geographic, and extra-curricular) and get really specific with what you need from each category in order to thrive; then conduct a (new) search based on the results. You should also go back and read the second post in this series!

Now, if you think you need more guidance than this, you can always reach out to your school counselor (or me!) for support. They will likely have a self-analysis worksheet that can help guide you through the process.

Assuming you did begin with a self-analysis and a target list based on those results and you’re still not finding schools that you find interesting, what else can you do?  

I would recommend you go back and revisit that self-analysis and make sure what you captured is truly what YOU want, and not what you think you should want, what you think is practical, or what you think other people expect of you. Some of these things will likely factor into your decision down the line, but you should begin with a target list that aligns to your needs and interests. After all, you’re the one that has to live with the results!

Talk It Out:
Taking a few days off from your college search and conducting some self-analysis isn’t always enough . Sometimes we’re so twisted up that we need some help untangling the knots that are blocking up our thought process and/or leaving us feeling paralyzed.

So my recommendation is to find a willing ear and get everything off your chest – your frustrations, your worries, the positives, the negatives, your ambitions…everything. Even if it only lasts 30 minutes, for those 30 minutes share your burden. That alone may be enough to get you going again. But before you do, I think you need to be strategic about how you do this – or perhaps more precisely, with whom you do this.

I always recommend you start with your parents (or guardian). As difficult as this communication channel can be, there is typically no one that knows you better or wants more deeply for you to be successful and happy than your parents. And while the college search process may be straining those lines of communication at the moment, they are likely full of wisdom, ideas, and compassion.

But I don’t think you should stop there. Parents and guardians can bring a lot to the table, but they are also likely going to be biased; even if they don’t want to be. So I think you should also seek out a third party – and not your best friend! Good listeners can be your school counselor, a coach, a relative, a consultant, or even a more distant friend. Anyone that you feel is willing to listen. Oftentimes you will find that it’s not so much the feedback you need – more the opportunity to get things off your chest!

Map It Out
Alright, so you have taken a few days off from your college search, you’ve revisited your self-analysis and feel like it’s still accurate, and you’ve talked the situation through with your parent and an unbiased third party, but you’re still not finding schools that intrigue you…what now?

I think it is a good idea to map it all out. Take 5-7 schools from your target list and create a pros and cons list for each. Put a lot of thought into the exercise and create a list that is detailed (target 3-5 pros AND cons for each school). Now look for patterns. 

What attributes are you finding attractive in these schools? Is there a common theme running through your “cons” lists? Is it possible that even if you feel your self-analysis is spot on, there are things you like in theory (such as a small quaint school), but not in practice (they feel a bit too quiet when you visit)? Is there a dream school that’s outside your grasp making all the other schools look worse than they really are?

Hopefully the exercise of putting it on paper (as oppose to wrestling with the concepts mentally) will reveal some insight.

Go Visit a Campus:
If you haven’t already, take some time to visit a college campus while it’s in full swing. Ideally you can visit the most appealing school from your list (even if you aren’t over the moon about it), but if that’s not possible just go visit a local campus. Sometimes we get so locked into college as a concept (webpages, booklets, conversations and stats) that we forget that they’re actually tangible places. 

All too often I see students get so bogged down in the process that they forget about all the excitement and “realness” that surrounds this decision. They get so lost in numbers (rankings, class sizes, admissions rates, etc.) that the schools become almost like baseball cards (I know, I’m old!) instead of institutions of opportunity.

To combat this, I’ve always found a great way to break out of the rut is to bring the excitement back – and a great way to bring the excitement back is to go sample the future. You may find that you still don’t like the schools on your list, but hopefully, in the worst case, you will have a renewed sense of excitement and clearer picture of what you want.


Alright, I think this is a good stopping point for this post. What I hope you take away is that whether you are an uncertain student or a certain student stuck in the process there are still ways you can make a wise college investment – it just may take a little abstract thinking and strategic action.

And remember…

If you liked this post I hope you will share it using the buttons on the left, and if you haven’t already, join the College Consulting HQ Online Community for more articles, tips, tools and strategies!

And remember, you can always use my home page to submit your most pressing college search questions and I’ll be happy to do my best to provide you with my professional opinion.  No sales, no pressure, just answers!

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