Straight from the Source

If you’re a sophomore or junior in high school, there’s a good chance you’re beginning to research the colleges that interest you right now.  (If you’re in a part of the country that’s been driven inside by the winter weather we’ve recently been blasted with, it might even be your new indoor hobby!)  Yet as you begin to examine and compare different schools, many of you may be wondering, “Am I doing this right?” and “Where can I get the best information about colleges?”

Allow me then to seize this opportunity to give you this tip that we professional college researchers (aka educational consultants) use when we want to learn more about schools that we aren’t personally familiar with:

We prefer to begin our search with primary sources.

Forgive me, students, if that tip sounds as though it came from the pages of your AP US History syllabus, but it will help you save time and anxiety over the course of your college search process if you adhere to it because it will ensure that the information you work with is as accurate as possible.

How’s that? you ask.

You may recall from your high school English or history classes that primary sources are (forgive the pun) straight from the horse’s mouth; that is, they are original documents, objects, or pieces of information that were present at the time under study.  Secondary sources are things like journal or newspaper articles that interpret, criticize, or provide commentary on the subject under study.  (If you want some illustrative examples, the folks at Princeton University have a guide published online.)

For college search purposes then, the best primary source is the college’s own web site.  All of the information found there is a firsthand accounting of the academic programs, extracurricular activities, and day-to-day occurrences related to that particular school.

Other primary sources include much of the information published in reports like The Princeton Review, U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings, and other similar college guides that can be found in your school’s college counseling office.  Those tend to provide numbers and facts that have been provided by the colleges themselves and offer no interpretation as to how those numbers should be read.  You might also use your school’s Naviance site, as much of the information contained there is provided by your own school guidance office.

Secondary sources include web sites like College Confidential, Cappex, and College Prowler, as well as sites like  These sites fall into the secondary category because even though they tend to feature firsthand information shared by current or former students at various colleges and universities, they are essentially college review sites, which means that the students who have posted are sharing opinions and their personal interpretations/evaluations of college programming and campus activities.  And while these reviews can be somewhat helpful along the way, it’s far more valuable for you to establish your own opinions during your college search than it will be to set out with preconceived ideas based on one student’s bad (or good!) experiences.  After all, what’s true for one student might not necessarily be true for you.

The same goes for college riding teams and programs.  The best sources of information equestrians can find are found at sites like the homepage for the IHSA, the IDA, and the NCEA.  These list the teams who are currently competing in sanctioned competitions and often include a link to the team’s web site and contact information for the coach or the team captain so that you can reach out personally with your questions.  If you’re on Facebook, I also like to track the competition records of each IHSA team via the fan page.  They give updated show results and team standings whenever they receive them from the various regions and it can be helpful to see which teams have consistent records and which ones might be going through a rebuilding year.  (You can also follow individual teams via Twitter, as many have their own feeds, which can not only keep you updated on their standings, but will also give you a sense of the team’s personality.)

Searching for the right college for you is one part art and one part science – so when you’re working on the science part, make sure you’re using those primary sources so that you can form your own opinions.  (And if you need guidance along the way, contact me.)


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