The Internet is a wonderful and horrible place for research. All the information you could ever want is right at your fingertips, but distractions abound – emails arriving, new stories on Facebook, the latest sports updates, just to name a few. To make it worse, most websites (including this one) are loaded with links to other pages, pulling your eyes and your brain in many directions at once. It takes real discipline to stay focused, and casual Internet research can quickly become wasted time.

This is a challenge for today’s teens, who do the vast majority of their college research online. I don’t want my students to waste their time, so when I suggest colleges for them, I also help them develop smart online research skills.

Here are some of my tips for researching colleges online:

  • Dedicate time specifically for college research. It can be 30 minutes a day, or 2 hours twice a week – what’s most important is that you set aside a chunk of time dedicated ONLY to researching colleges.
  • Have a plan and a goal – what information are you actually trying to find? The plan may change based on what’s most important to you at the time. One week you might be interested in learning about each college’s requirements for your major, and a few weeks later you might be more focused on campus culture. But always start a research session with a specific goal in mind.
  • Close all websites, programs or documents not related to your college research. Yes, all of them. This helps tremendously.
  • Focus on ONE college at a time, and dive deep to really learn about it. On the Internet, it’s easy to jump from college to college, but avoid this. If you come across another college that seems interesting, make a note to check it out later.
  • Decided on just a few websites to start with. Some of my favorites for college research are Big Future, Unigo, Niche, YOUniversitytv and YouVisit. For the most accurate data, head straight to College Navigator. Of course the college websites are important too, but keep in mind that many college websites are designed to be marketing tools.
  • Stay focused on yourself, and what’s important to you. You might notice student reviews complaining about campus food, but if food quality isn’t important to you, then don’t let this detail affect your opinion. Remember that ultimately you are looking for colleges where YOU will be happy and successful, so don’t let the opinions of others (including your friends) have too much weight.
  • Take notes, because the details will likely get muddled later. Finish your research of each college with a quick summary of your overall impressions and questions.

Of course, online research is only one step in the process. It’s important to get beyond the World Wide Web and research colleges offline – two of the best options are attending college fairs and visiting college campuses. I also strongly recommend using one of the “big books,” such as the Fiske Guide to Colleges or Princeton Review’s 379 Best Colleges.

As part of my College List Program and Comprehensive Program, I offer hands-on guidance in researching colleges, with the goal of building each student a list of colleges where they are most likely to thrive. Contact me if you’d like more details!