Help! So Many U.S. College Names Sound Alike!

Question: I am an international student who wants to attend a university in the U.S. A friend of mine suggested the University of San Diego and a relative suggested the University of California San Diego. I'm confused ... is this two different universities or the same one? It seems like a lot of American colleges have almost identical names. How can I tell if one is better than the other?

Many U.S. students are as confused as you are when it comes to colleges with similar-sounding names, but I suspect that this confusion can be even greater for students from abroad.

Not only is the University of San Diego easy to mix up with The University of California San Diego (which is a completely different institution), but also America is home to countless other colleges with names that are all too easy to confuse, as you seem to have to discovered already.

Among these, for instance, you'll find:

Cornell College (Iowa) and Cornell University (New York)

Northeastern University (Massachusetts) and Northwestern University (Illinois)

DePaul University (Illinois) and DePauw University (Indiana)

Miami University (Ohio) and University of Miami (Florida)

Trinity College (Connecticut) and Trinity University (Texas) And there are at least a half dozen more colleges with “Trinity" in the the name.

University of Washington (Washington) and Washington University in St. Louis (Missouri).

Then there's also Washington and Lee University (Virginia), Washington & Jefferson College (Pennsylvania), Washington College (Maryland), and George Washington University (District of Columbia). Indeed, the list of schools that honor America's first president goes on and on.

And, in many states, you'll find a “the University of ___________" [name of state] as well as “____________ State University," such as the University of Iowa (Iowa City, Iowa) and Iowa State University (Ames) or the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan) and Michigan State University (East Lansing)

And occasionally two colleges will even have the exact same name, such as Wheaton College in Massachusetts and Wheaton College in Illinois. And there's a Union College in New York, Nebraska and Kentucky, as well as a bunch more elsewhere with Union in their titles.

So when exploring colleges, especially from afar, it's important to distinguish among the befuddling choices. One good way to do that is by using the College Board's “Search by College Name" option, which you'll find here: When you type in a college's name, you can see its location and get a lot of other data (size, majors, admission criteria and standards, financial aid policies, etc.) You can even use the “Compare" function so you can easily see how Cornell College differs from Cornell University, and so on. Once you get the basics down using the College Board site, you can read more on each school's Web site or check out “anecdotal guidebooks" such as Princeton Review's Best 381 Colleges, The Fiske Guide to Colleges, or The Insider's Guide to Colleges. These books don't cover every college you may be considering but, for those schools included, you will get information that goes beyond just the dry facts and figures.

Warning: Applicants from abroad, especially those struggling with English, are more likely than American students to confuse the names of proprietary colleges (for-profit institutions that may be completely legitimate but all-too-commonly are not) with those of non-profit schools. For instance, California Southern University (proprietary) sure sounds a lot like the University of Southern California (a top non-profit private school). National American University (proprietary) might get mixed up with American University (private, non-profit). I'm not saying that you should avoid the proprietary schools entirely, but do tread carefully so that you know exactly where you're enrolling.

As for University of San Diego and the University of California San Diego, you can check out their differences online, in books, or—ideally—in person, but if you want year-round sunshine, you can't go wrong with either.