Up until the beginning of your junior year, college might be a somewhat abstract vision. While some students might have a specific dream school in mind from childhood through high school, other students will have only some vague idea of what they are looking for in a college, and still others will have absolutely no idea.

 

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to deciding where you want to apply to college. With more than 7,000 post-secondary institutions to choose from in the United States, there are varieties to suit almost any combination of interests, goals, and priorities.

 

But come junior year, it’s time to start narrowing down those 7,000 options to something closer to a dozen. Where to begin?

The answer isn’t crystal clear and it will have to do with your exact priorities. You need to critically think about what’s most important to you in a college as you begin to make your college list.

 

In fact, we suggest that you use our checklist by reading the categories first, and then arranging them in order of personal priority for you. While some students might insist that they can’t leave their home state, others will be set on finding a competitive sports team or active Greek life. Read through our list of considerations for creating a college list, and use it to guide your thinking as your narrow your choices.

 

Even for students who have dreamed about a specific single college from the time they were in grade school, taking a critical look at the bigger picture and creating a college list based on your own priorities is an important process.

 

In this post, we outline ten critical steps to narrowing down your college list so that you send out a selection of smart, targeted college applications when the time comes, and ultimately attend a college that is a great fit for you.

 

Read on for our checklist of ten considerations for creating your college list.

 

Take a Critical Look at Your Overall Profile

 

Before you can really start taking a serious look at colleges, you’ll need to take a serious look at yourself.

 

 

It might be hard to step back and take an honest assessment, but having a realistic perception of your own accomplishments, strengths, and weaknesses will help you to make a college list that is realistic for you.

 

 

Start by considering your grades and class rank. Are they highly competitive, average, or somewhat lacking? GPA and class rank are among the first things a college admissions committee will consider. While a poor GPA won’t necessarily exclude you from admission, it won’t help your chances either. Learn more about what qualifies as a strong GPA at the most competitive universities by reading CollegeVine’s What is a Good GPA for Top Schools?

 

 

Beyond your grades, you’ll also need to consider your test scores. While it’s likely that your scores will improve if you take your standardized tests again, your initial scores will give you an idea of where you stand. If they aren’t as strong as you’d like, consider taking steps to improve them.

 

 

Finally, think about your extracurricular activities. Have you participated in activities for a prolonged period? Have you taken leadership roles? Have you won awards or otherwise been recognized for excellence? These factors will also weigh into your overall profile as an applicant.

 

 

Think critically about the strength of your application to get an honest idea of where you stand. This will be the most important determining factor in creating an effective college list.



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Think About Region

 

One of the most common ways to get started with creating a possible college list is to consider in which geographical region(s) you would be interested in attending college. Many students know immediately how far from home they want to be. If you are within driving distance, you might be able to visit if you’re feeling homesick. But if you’re further away and know that’s not a possibility, maybe you will adjust more quickly to the transition to college. Only you can really answer this question.

 

 

Furthermore, think about places you’ve always wanted to experience. Maybe you know you’ve always wanted to experience living in New York City or California. Maybe you know you want to be near a sibling or your grandparents. Whatever the case may be, getting an idea of the specific region that you want to spend your college years in will help to immediately narrow down your list of colleges.

 

 

If you really don’t care at all about where your college is located, you can revisit the question of region later on, after you’ve received your acceptances, to decide which region may be the best fit for you.

 

 

Think About Setting 

 

As you think about region, also think about the setting of your ideal college. Do you want to go someplace urban, suburban, or rural?

 

 

If you are leaning towards an urban setting, ask yourself if you’ll be comfortable making your way around a big city by yourself. If you’re considering a more suburban or even rural setting, think about transportation logistics and how you’ll get around, including to and from the airport if you need to fly there.

 

 

Also consider if you want to be near a body of water, the mountains, or lots of green space. If these are non-negotiables for you, you are another step closer to narrowing down your college list.

 

 

Review Departments and Programs in Your Areas of Interest

 

You will need to make sure that the colleges you apply to offer strong programs in your intended major or areas of interest. Even if you don’t have a clear idea of what your exact major will be, you can still consider the possibilities. 

 

 

Look at which majors are available at different colleges in the areas you’re considering. Find out what course requirements exist and if certain programs require a separate application process.

 

 

Ultimately, if you can’t find the major that you’re interested in at a specific college, it probably won’t make the cut to your final college list.

 

 

Consider Selectivity

 

Ultimately, your final college list will consist of 2-3 safety schools, 3-5 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools. To create this list, you’ll need to understand how your application will place you among other applicants.

 

 

How competitive your application will be depends on the factors you considered when you took a critical look at your profile. Now, take that information and use it to begin fine-tuning your list of colleges.

 

 

The College Board’s Big Future search feature allows you to filter colleges based on your interests, test scores, and grades. This is a great place to get started.

 

 

Your test scores should place you in the 75th percentile or above of admitted students’ test scores at your safety schools. For target schools your scores should place you around the 50th percentile, and for reach schools your scores should place you at around the 25th percentile. It’s important to note that at schools with extremely competitive admissions—generally meaning those with an acceptance rate of 15% or below—even having scores and a GPA in the 75th percentile doesn’t mean you can consider that school a safety or even a target school. All applicants, regardless of statistics, should consider these schools reach schools.

 

 

Search for Important Extracurriculars or Support Resources

 

Another consideration as you compare schools and narrow your search should be the extracurriculars and other resources that you might utlitize in college. For some students, a strong religious or political presence on campus may be important. Others might seek out a school with strong resources for LGBT students.

 

 

If you are intent on playing a sport, you should think about what level you’ll be able to compete at and consider whether it’s important enough to you for you to make it a defining aspect in your college search.

 

 

You might also consider art programs, student government, or foreign language clubs. Think about what interests you will want to pursue in college and see if the colleges you’re considering have program in place to support them.

 

 

Plan Finances

 

For many students, paying for college is a concern that needs to be taken into consideration. For some, financial concerns are of utmost importance, and for others, they are more of a peripheral issue. Whatever the case is for you, be sure to account for these considerations as you create your college list.

 

 

The Federal Student Aid site is a great place to get started. It allows you to search for loans and scholarships, as well as estimate how much aid you can expect to receive. It also helps to frame your future career choices in the context of earning potential.

 

 

You should take into account how much you can expect to earn with the degree you intend to pursue. You need to be certain that your intended career will lead to a salary that can support your student loans.

 

 

Consider Size of the School

 

For some students, school size is a primary concern. If you’re coming from a small high school, even a college on the smaller side is likely to feel quite large by comparison. But the size of the school isn’t the only determining factor in how big it feels while you’re there.

 

 

Large schools might still have smaller class sizes in most upper level courses. Also, you may have just as much access to your professors. Sometimes a larger school has far more resources than a smaller school, too, like a more extensive library or more established tutoring available.

 

 

Use the school size to help narrow your list as needed if it’s something that is important to you, but know that a school is only as large as you allow it to be. By taking some initiative to form personal relationships with your adviser and professors, even a large school can feel much smaller.

 

 

Consider Campus Life

 

Another variable that may be very important to some students and less important to others is campus life. These factors might include dorms, dining halls, student life or Greek life. If you want to live off-campus, be sure to find a school that allows that and consider if you want to attend a school where living off campus is the norm, or just a school where it’s a possibility.

 

 

Greek life can be another important factor for some students. If you’re interested in joining a fraternity or sorority, be sure to research the Greek life at the schools on your list.

 

 

This is the time when campus visits can come in handy, since much of campus life is best discovered through experience rather than research. Obviously you won’t be able to visit dozens upon dozens of colleges, so generally these visits occur after you’ve already narrowed down your list quite a bit.

 

 

Share and Discuss Your List

 

It can sometimes feel awkward at first to advertise your ambitions. If you’ve privately set your heart on a selective school and you’re afraid you won’t get in, it might even feel a little scary or intimidating to share your dream with others.

 

 

But discussing your college list with the important people in your life is a crucial step. Share your list with mentors, parents, and teachers or guidance counselors. They may have personal experience with some of the schools you’re considering, and they might be able to offer insight or advice. Furthermore, you never know when a personal connection will surface and become an integral part of networking.

 

 

Narrowing down a college list from over 7,000 possibilities to just a dozen is not an easy task, but if you break it down by considering which characteristics matter most to you, you will be able to refine your options and create a personalized college list that reflects your interests, priorities, and strengths.

 

 

If you still need help creating a list of colleges to apply to, or you are second-guessing the list you’ve already created, we are here to help. Consider our CollegeVine’s Mentorship Program, which provides practical advice on topics from college admissions to career aspirations, all from successful college students who have been in your shoes.

 

 

For more information about narrowing down your college list, check out these CollegeVine posts:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist

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