Three Steps to Building Your College List

Your college list may the be the single most important part of your college admission process!  The magic, we always say, is in the list.  Your college list will determine how successful you will be, how many actual college choices you’ll have, and how you will feel at the end.  When all of your college decisions come back, will you be able to say you were admitted to 100% of the colleges you applied to?  Will there be heartbreak?  Will there be scholarships?

The magic is in the list.

A good college list will make you proud.  It will give you options!  You’ll feel confident that your options are GOOD ones for YOU – places you’ll fit in.  Colleges at which you’ll be happy and successful for four years.

So how can you go about building a college list that will yield those results?  Here are three steps you should follow:

STEP 1:  Do some introspection, and define your college priorities.

There are tons of good colleges and universities out there (2,200 four-year colleges in the United States alone, to be exact).  But are they good for YOU?  You can only answer this question after you’ve asked yourself what you are hoping for and expecting out of your college experience.  You might consider going through this self-survey to help you think about what you’re looking for.  These are the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask yourself:

  • How far away from home do you want to go?
  • Do you want a small college?  Medium?  Large?  As you answer, consider what each of those might mean in and out of the classroom.  What kind(s) of classes support your learning style best – lectures, discussion?  Do you want to have regular communication with your professors?  These things are impacted by college size.
  • What do you want to major in?  Even if you don’t know exactly (which is fine!), you probably have a few different academic interests you may want to explore in college.
  • How do you want to spend your time outside the classroom?  Are you super-outdoorsy and do you need ski slopes close by?  Are you active in community service or other clubs?  Do you need a vibrant art or music scene?  All of these things can be impacted by your college location.
  • For parents:  how much do you actually want to spend on college?  A college’s sticker price is not necessarily what you will end up paying.  For a deeper dive on how college financial aid works, we recommend you read this post and watch the short webinar embedded in it.

Step 2:  Do your research.

This sounds obvious – of course you will research colleges!  But how do you actually research a college?  If you’ve already gone through Step 1 and identified your priorities, you should make sure the colleges you are researching actually have the things you want!  If it doesn’t have your major – OFF THE LIST!  If it’s too far from home or doesn’t have the weather you prefer – OFF THE LIST!  If merit scholarships are a MUST HAVE, make sure you’re looking at colleges that give merit aid, because many do not (more on that in the financial aid webinar linked above).

Make sure to go beyond the colleges you know – dig deep in this step.  You may want to consider searching on the College Board’s “Big Future” website to come up with a preliminary list.  We also like to suggest colleges from these sources:

  • Colleges That Change Lives
  • NARAC – many colleges have regional admission counselors who live in your area.  Search for a group in your area and see what colleges are represented!
  • WUE – families in the Western US can pay less for college through this tuition exchange program.  See if there’s one in your region!

Here’s another post with a few more tips about researching the right colleges.

Step 3:  Make sure your list is balanced.

You may think you’re at the stage where you need to narrow down your college list, but in reality, you probably need to make your list bigger before you make it smaller.  That’s because you probably have a good number of “reach” schools on your list, but not enough “target” or “likely” schools where we are SURE you will be admitted.  It’s really important that you build a balanced college list to ensure you get good results.

What do we mean by balance – and why is it so important?

College admission has changed completely since those of us who are parent-aged applied to college.  Due to grade inflation, more students than ever are graduating high school with a straight-A average, making the review process for colleges more difficult, and in response, they have made their process more holistic, taking much more into account than just grades and test scores (many now don’t even require test scores – more on what test-optional means here).  So if you have any colleges on your list that admit fewer than 30% of their applicant pool, those are a “reach,” no matter what grades you get, no matter what scores you get, no matter what extra-curricular activities you do.  A list full of “reach” schools is a big, scary gamble and it is sure to ADD STRESS to your child’s college application process.  It’s perfectly fine to apply to some “reach” schools!  Just make sure your list is exclusively “reach” schools.

Also – it’s not cumulative!  In this blog post, we interview a statistics professor who helps explain why applying to a large number of super-selective colleges doesn’t necessarily increase your chance of being admitted to one.

If it’s prestige you’re after, please read this post about the methodology behind the college rankings.  Here’s the bottom line:  rankings don’t tell you if a college is a good fit for YOUR CHILD.  That’s what you should be focused on during your college search.

And honestly, you’ll find prestige almost everywhere in American universities!  As you’re researching colleges, look at the faculty bios in the academic department your child is most likely to major in.  You will notice that even at schools that aren’t what you would consider “top tier,” you’ll find  professors with Ivy League and “top tier” degrees!

That’s what we mean by balance.

There are more tips for building your college list, and about the college admission process in general, in our FREE College Admission Clinic.  We hope you’ll sign up and learn more about the ins and outs of this journey.  Please feel free to share this free resource with friends!

If you need help with any of this, that’s what we do!  Our trained, professional counselors are here to support you and your child in any way you think you need.  Get in touch to set up a free consultation.


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