What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

5 Tips for Building Your First College List


Creating your first college list can seem like a daunting task. You’ll probably start in 10th grade, or possibly even earlier, and your interests can change a lot over the next couple years. When you write your initial list, remember that this is only a starting point; the list will evolve based on your college visits, how you perceive the fit of different schools, and your own interests and goals.


Your first list should be based on the programs and majors schools offer, location, competitiveness, and the other factors you deem important at this point. Read on for five tips to guide you as you create your college list.


Consider Your Academic Goals

The colleges you add to your initial list should align with your academic goals. That means at the very least, they should offer majors you can picture yourself studying.


Don’t immediately dismiss schools that seem to specialize in something else. Your candidacy could be stronger at a school like this. For instance, if a college that is known to be a engineering-focused is trying to build up its humanities program, the admissions committee might consider you a valuable addition if you’re intending to study English.


You should also include a mix of safety, target, and reach schools. Maybe you want to go to an Ivy League college, but understand that you need some backups, since admission is so competitive at top-tier schools. Also, make sure that your safety schools are aligned with your academic goals. They should offer your intended major and be appropriately rigorous, because you don’t want to feel like you’re settling if you end up attending that school.


Check out The College List Decoded: Safeties, Targets, and Reaches to better understand what each designation means for you.


Think About Your Fit with the Colleges

Take into account how well you think you would fit in at each school. Can you picture yourself on campus? Do you have shared interests and commonalities with students who go there? To learn more about fit, read What Does It Mean to “Fit” with a College?.


Even without visiting, you can get a feel for the culture based on what you read and hear from current or past students. How well you’ll fit in can depend on what’s most important to you. For instance, you might want to take into account the religious affiliation or lack thereof, Greek life, the influence of athletics on the overall tenor of the school, and the size of the campus and student body.

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Factor in Location

Consider how close colleges are to you—and how far you want to be from home. The particular region probably affects campus culture, and you may fit in better with some than others. Also, consider whether you want to be in an urban, suburban, or rural setting.


Think about how the colleges your considering differ from one another, too, and how these difference are manifested.


Finding College Matches

So where do you start?


There are many college search services, such as the College Board’s Big Future™, that can serve as a starting point. Take a look at rankings in U.S. News and World Report and The Princeton Review, paying special attention to the rankings for the factors that are most important to you—not just the overall difficulty of getting in. Online forums are a good place to look as well, because they offer firsthand accounts from students. Check out How to Make Your College Search Easy for more tips on where to find schools.


If you can’t find enough matches, you may want to broaden your search. For instance, instead of searching only for schools that have creative writing majors, include those with English majors as well, because you might be able to concentrate on or minor in creative writing. On the flip side, if you’re overwhelmed by the number of matches, factor in other priorities.


Do Your Research

Try to narrow down your first list to 10-12 schools. You may not end up applying to all of them, and you may also add others later. Research each school on your list by going online, talking to current and former students, and visiting the schools if you can. Take a look at How Can I Figure Out a School’s Culture Without Visiting the Campus? for more tips on gauging your fit with a school.


You should also express interest in the colleges on your list. Not only does this show colleges that you’re interested, but it also enables you to receive more information and learn more about the schools, since you’ll get on mailing and email lists.


Consider practical factors at this point as well, such as likelihood of admission and financial aid. The more you research, the more you’ll figure out what appeals to you and what doesn’t.


The Takeaway

Creating your college list is an important first step in planning your academic future. It can help you figure out what you want and what you don’t want for your transitional years.


Remember: This list is essentially a rough draft, so don’t feel like you have to apply to every school on it. Writing it early can help guide your decisions, research, and college visits. It will also help you get into the college prep mindset—application season will be here before you know it!


For more tips on creating your college list, read our other guides:


10 Considerations for Making Your College List

Five Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Your College List

Choosing a College: How to Get Started


Does your teen want access to expert college guidance — for free? When they create their free CollegeVine account, they will find out their real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve their profile, and get their questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Encourage them to sign up for their CollegeVine account today to get a boost on their college journey.


Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.