A Pre-Collegiette’s Guide to Decoding College Websites

For high school seniors in the midst of the college application process (and juniors just beginning), navigating through the countless pages of college websites can become a cumbersome task. With so many statistics, lists, facts and figures available in just one click, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information available – especially when you’re looking at multiple schools’ sites. After a while, many of the websites begin to look the same, and determining what’s relevant and what’s not can seem nearly impossible—until now!

After consulting with college experts and collegiettes alike, we’ve created a list of the five essential elements of every college website and how to get the most of them.

1. The campus life section

Between deciding on a major and obsessing over your latest SAT scores, it can be easy to forget that college life is more than just academics. After all, it’s your home for the next four years!

“When I was looking at college websites, I always looked at the campus life section,” says Sarah Dilick, a freshman at New York University. “Even at the best academic school in the world, you could have a terrible time if the lifestyle doesn’t fit you.”

When considering campus life, remember the multiple aspects that comprise a campus’s culture beyond its geography. While deciding whether you want to live on an urban or rural campus is important, consider what you want to do when you’re not sitting in class. Are there a variety of clubs and extracurricular activities relevant to your interests? How prominent is Greek life? Is there a balance of athletic and arts-related events? Many college websites will provide photos and/or videos of clubs and traditional events so you can get a feel for the environment before you even step on campus!

2. The list of majors and minors

Whether you’ve known what you’ve wanted to do since you were a little kid or you’re going into your freshman year undecided, a school’s list of majors and minors is a great starting place for exploring academic information efficiently.

“Going into college, I knew that I wanted to study journalism,” says Danielle Hensley, a freshman at Indiana University Bloomington. “By reading about the journalism majors on several different school’s websites, I was able to figure out which program was best for me.”

While some lists of majors are organized alphabetically, others are organized by the specific school they’re in. Most medium and large universities are comprised of many smaller, individual “schools,” such as a school of business, a school of arts and sciences or a school of education.

“I always direct students to look [at the list of majors and minors],” says Michelle Podbelsek, a college counselor with College Counseling Associates. “Click on the department website where they show the requirements for that degree, and then on most websites you can go into actual course descriptions. Also, on most department websites, they will show college societies and co-curricular clubs and opportunities related to the major. For high school students, these facts seem to help a lot in … imagining their college life.”

When you click on a major or minor that interests you, the website will often redirect you to the specific school or program where that major is offered. From there, you can explore any additional requirements for admission or similar majors offered in that school.

3. The financial aid section

While the initial price tag of a college may be daunting, it’s important to look past the slew of numbers and determine which financial aid options are available. Most college websites will break their financial aid information into two sections: need-based aid and merit-based aid.

“Need-based … will be given if the student’s family income qualifies them for getting help to pay based on how much money their family makes,” Podbelsek says.  Most schools that you apply to will strongly encourage you to complete and submit the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to determine the amount of need-based aid you may receive, so this section of the website is usually pretty brief.

“Merit-based aid is scholarships based on talents or academic achievement,” Podbelsek says. “If an applicant has high grades and/or test scores compared to the profile of that college, then the college may offer them merit aid to attract them to come there.”

However, information regarding merit-based aid can be trickier to decipher, because each school has its own policy when it comes to awarding scholarships. Read about the different categories of scholarships that are available, whether they’re based on general academics, athletics or admission into a specific academic program. Are students automatically considered for scholarships when they submit their general application, or are other applications required? Be sure to take careful notes of the due dates, as many deadlines for scholarship consideration come early in the fall.

4. Admissions statistics

You’ve heard teachers, counselors and college reps warn of them before, but where do you determine which admission stats are real and which are rumors? Nearly all colleges and universities provide their admissions statistics online, which can include anything from their acceptance rate to the average GPA of an accepted student and minimum requirements for SAT/ACT scores.

“The percent accepted [statistic] is a key number in coordination with the average GPA and test scores,” Podbelsek says. “Also—is the college test optional? Do they require SAT Subject Tests? Most colleges have a good section where they discuss this in detail and show geographic and other profiles of their accepted students.”

These statistics are useful because they can help a prospective student like yourself determine whether or not you’re a good fit for the school. Websites like the College Board even allow you to filter through schools based on these statistics.

While these numbers make it easier for a prospective student like yourself to narrow down her list of options, they shouldn’t deter you from applying to a certain school just because you don’t meet the minimum score requirement. In fact, many counselors will encourage students to apply to at least one “dream” or “stretch” school!

5. The residential life section

While the campus life section of a college website describes the clubs and extracurricular opportunities offered at a school, the residential life section focuses on the housing and living facilities available. 

The larger the school, the more options you will have when it comes to determining where you want to live your freshman year. While most colleges require freshman to live in dorms, one residence hall can be completely different from the next. Be sure to check out a campus map online to see where the residence halls are located in relation to the academic buildings and facilities that interest you.

Additionally, many larger schools have living-learning communities, which allow students of similar academic or extracurricular interests to live on the same floor or in the same dorm together.  Living-learning communities can be a great way to meet people and make friends who share similar interests.

“Being a journalism major, I decided to join the media living-learning center,” says Danielle Hensley, a freshman at Indiana University Bloomington. “I’ve met so many interesting people, and we’re in a lot of the same classes and clubs together, so it’s a very supportive environment. Being a part [of a living-learning community] is a great way to make a large university seem small.”

Most college websites provide photos, videos or even virtual tours of their residence halls and other facilities online, so be sure to do research before your first visit and determine which buildings you want to check out in person!

While the plethora of information available can seem daunting, college websites are easy to navigate when you know what you’re looking for. Focusing on a few key elements is the best way to ensure you’re getting the information you need in a productive, efficient manner—meaning you’ll have more time to focus on the actual applications once you’re ready. Best of luck this application season, collegiettes!