Building your college list is one of the most critical parts of your college admissions process. There are over 4000 colleges and universities in the United States alone. How do you even begin to narrow that down to a reasonable list of schools you’re going to apply to? How do you make sure that the ones you’ve chosen are truly best-fit schools – that is, the right schools for you? Let’s take a deep dive into the process for creating your college list!

Brainstorming and Initial Research

First, begin by doing a bit of brainstorming. Ask yourself (and write down your answers to) a few important questions.

  • What are the most important things you want out of your college experience? Top-tier academics? A particular set of extracurricular engagements? Social life?
  • Can you imagine yourself living in a city or in the middle of nowhere in a college town?
  • Do you want a small, intimate environment or one with several thousand students per grade?
  • What do you want to study? If you’re undecided, that’s okay, then ask yourself what schools are best for undecided students.
  • Are there any specific, unique programs that you are looking for?

This should be enough to get you started. Once you’ve written down your answers to these questions, you’ll have a clearer idea of what kind of school you’re looking for. The more specific your answers are, the more you will have narrowed down your potential list.

Now, begin doing some initial research. Fortunately, you can learn an incredible amount about each school simply by using the internet. Start by researching the schools you’ve heard of before. Go on their websites and do a deep dive into their academic offerings and student life. Find out where they are located, how big they are, etc. Basically, you are trying to see if they fit the criteria you created in your initial brainstorming session. Keep a list of all the schools that seem to be fitting into what you’re looking for.

With this, you are slowly building up your preliminary list!

Narrowing it Down: Student Conversations, Webinars, and College Visits

Okay, once you’ve gotten your list down to a couple/few dozen schools, you need to narrow it down. Generally speaking, we find that applying to 10 schools is a good sweet spot. This allows your to properly balance your list (we’ll talk about this in the next section), apply to plenty of schools, and not overwhelm yourself by applying to too many schools.

In order to bring your list down to 10, there are a few different strategies you might employ.

  1. Student Conversations – This is one of the best ways out there to get to know what a school is actually like. Explore your personal network and find out if you, your family members, or your friends know anybody who is a current or recently graduated student of any of the universities on your list. Then, reach out and ask for a brief phone call where they can tell you about their experience. Ask them about the best and worst parts, what they wish they had known before going in, what kind of student they would recommend their school to, and other questions of this nature. This is your opportunity to hear about a school directly from somebody who has experienced it. It’s a window in that is far more clear than anything you may find online, so please take advantage of this excellent resource!15
  2. Webinars/Online Presentations – Universities often host online chats about their schools. This is common enough that you should be able to find one in the near future for any major school you’re considering. These presentations are usually hosted by a member of the admissions team and the can cover a wide range of topics including, but not limited to, the admissions process at the school, academic opportunities, student/social life, and more. Sometimes there is even a question and answer section at the end of the presentation where you can inquire about the things that have been on your mind directly with a school representative.
  3. College Visits – This is the most involved option, as it will likely require you to travel long distances and stay in other cities overnight. It is not strictly necessary to get to know a school, but it can be very helpful. If you find that you happen to travel to a city with your family or for whatever reason, take advantage of visiting and touring the colleges that are in that city that you are interested in. This is an easy way to start getting to know schools. You can do this as early as you’d like. You don’t have to wait until you’re in 11th grade. Be sure to schedule an official tour (this can easily be done on the college’s website). Here, you will be led by a current student or admissions officer as they show you around campus, take you into buildings, and give insights into life there. It can be very eye-opening.

Balancing Your List

By now, you should have a much better idea of what schools are going to be on your final list. If you diligently completed all the above tasks to the best of your ability, you will have a very clear picture of what you want and how each school does or does not meet those needs. One final element that we will mention is that you need to ensure that your list is balanced.

What does it mean for a list to be balanced? It means that your list includes schools that are “more likely,” “target,” and “reach.” More likely schools are ones in which you are above the average GPA and standardize test score range. These are ones that used to be called “safety” schools, but can no longer be called that because of how competitive admissions has gotten. Nothing is guaranteed in today’s college admissions environment. Target schools are ones for which you are right at the average GPA and test score range. Reach schools are the most competitive schools in the country. These include, but are not limited to, the ones that have single digit acceptance rates. Keep in mind that reach schools are reach schools for all applicants. Nobody can truly say that Stanford is a target or likely school for them, no matter how impressive they are as an applicant.

Balancing your list requires that you have healthy proportions of each kind of school on your list. If you apply to 10 reach schools, you are setting yourself up to potentially not be admitted anywhere. If you apply to 10 more likely schools, you may be foregoing the opportunity to study at an institution with better academic programs. Generally speaking, we recommend applying to 2-3 more likely schools, 5-6 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools. This is what makes for a balanced list that will ensure two things. First, that you will have options to choose from when you get your results back. Second, that you will neither give up the chance of trying at more competitive schools nor be reckless by not applying to any more likely schools.

Help Creating a Balanced List

At American College Counselors, we work one-on-one with students to help them craft a balanced list of the best-fit schools. We use our expertise to provide information and guidance that helps students understand what schools will be best for them. We then help them identify which category their schools belong to so we ensure that we craft a balanced list that will maximize overall admissions success.

If you need help on your college list, interviews, applications, essays, resumes, or anything else related to the admissions process, please contact us to set up a free initial consultation where we can get to know each other a bit better and explain exactly what we do. Send us an email at [email protected] or call/text us at +1(954)-593-6230.