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Five Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Your College List

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One of the first and most important steps that you’ll take when beginning the college application process is creating a college list. All the hard work, test prep, and essay writing in the world won’t do you any good if you’re applying to colleges that aren’t right for you. And what’s right for you will be wrong for others, so creating a college list is a personal process that you’ll need to undertake on your own.


So, what exactly is a college list?

A college list is a working list of the schools to which you intend to apply. You can start creating this list as early as freshman or sophomore year of high school, as long as you keep in mind that it is a work in progress. As you grow and change throughout high school, so will your college list.


Generally, your list will eventually be narrowed down to between six and twelve final choices. These schools will represent a range of selectivity and various other factors that you’ve weighed carefully in your college search. While they may vary by region, size, or any other consideration, all should be schools in which you’re genuinely interested and excited about potentially attending.


There are over 7,000 undergraduate institutes in the United States, so narrowing your options is no easy task. You will need to consider your priorities and any other determining factors as you whittle your list down to a tiny fraction of those 7,000 choices. While it can be a daunting task to begin, it’s one that’s critical to get right. Ultimately, the schools on your final list will represent your options for college.


Avoid the following mistakes when putting together your list.


1. Putting the Priorities of Others Ahead of Your Own

Up until this point in your life, there have probably been fairly few major decisions that you’ve been fully in charge of making, and choosing your college is often still not your decision to make alone. But just because you also need to weigh factors that influence others doesn’t mean that your own priorities need to take a back seat.


In order to make sure that your priorities are taken into account, you’ll first need to decide what they are. You’ll want to consider things like region, setting, size, campus life, and campus services. Discuss your ideas with teachers, guidance counselors, mentors, and family. Listen to their advice, but make your own choices that feel the best for you.


You may need to advocate for yourself to ensure that the schools on your list are an accurate representation of your values and priorities. Sometimes everyone will need to make compromises. For example, you may be interested in attending colleges across the country, while your parents prefer that you stay close by. Finding some mid-distance schools that you all agree on is one way to make sure your preferences matter.


Sometimes, if a compromise isn’t available, the best you can do is to ensure that your voice is heard clearly. In many cases, parents are helping to foot the bill for college, so it’s understandable that they may feel they should have some influence over where their money is going. If this is the case for you, and you find that your opinions differ, be prepared to clearly state your case and back up your points. You might not be able to change their minds, but at least you’ll know that your voice was heard.


2. Ruling Out ‘Expensive’ Colleges Too Early

For many students, finances are an essential consideration when it comes to choosing colleges. But just because you need to think about your budget doesn’t mean that you should be excluding a college based on its sticker price.


A relatively small proportion of college students pay the sticker price to attend college. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that over 80% of full-time, first-time, degree-seeking undergrads receive financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study programs, or loans. Financial aid packages and scholarships will vary significantly from school to school, so don’t rule out a school based on its tuition or fees alone.


Many of the more expensive private schools still have need-blind admissions and need-based aid. For example, at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, the 2016-2017 total cost for tuition, room and board, and fees was $64,957. This might seem restrictive on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Pomona has both need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid. Its aid consists entirely of grants, scholarships, and work stipends so that no loans are required (though some families may take them out privately to help finance their contribution).


At Pomona, 67% of students receive aid, with the average grant aid received amounting to $36,980. So, while the sticker price might seem to be outside of your budget, the average student receiving aid there pays less than half the total cost.


Don’t take a school off your college list simply because you think you won’t be able to afford it. It’s good to be realistic, but until you explore the extent of aid and loans available there, keep your options open. Most schools have tools available on their websites to assist with net-cost estimations. If you can’t find one, you can take a look at this list of net-price calculators from U.S. News and World Report.



3. Not Striking the Right Balance of Schools

As you choose the colleges that will make up your list, you’ll need to be sure they represent a realistic variety of selectivity. Applying to only Ivy League schools would be ill-advised for even the most qualified students. Ideally, your final college list should include about 2-3 safety schools, 3-5 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools.


Some students get wrapped up in a school’s selectivity and become focused on only attending a highly selective, big-name college. But all highly selective schools should generally be considered reach schools, regardless of your academic profile. Most receive applications from far more qualified candidates than they can accept, so simply meeting the high academic standards expected at such a school still won’t guarantee you a spot there.


Instead, focus on creating a list of desirable schools with varying degrees of selectivity. Focus especially on the schools that you select as safety schools. There is a tendency to think of these as backup choices or last resorts, but you should put enough thought and reflection into selecting them that they are truly schools you’d be happy to attend.


By ensuring that your list represents a broad swath of admissions selectivity while staying true to your own priorities and preferences, you’ll be certain to have some great options to choose from when it is finally time to commit to a school. For more about selectivity and college lists, check out our post The College List, Decoded: Safety, Target, and Reach Schools.


4. Limiting the Variety of Schools

As you are narrowing your list of colleges down, there will always be some factors that you weigh more heavily than others. Maybe you don’t want to go someplace too far from home, or perhaps you want to attend a school with a strong business program. These are both great considerations to take into account in the planning process.


But there is a lot of time and growth that occurs between submitting your college applications and moving onto campus the following fall. You never know when your priorities might change over the span of eight months, so it’s good to choose schools that represent a broad variety of your values. If you think you’ll want to stay close to home, select mostly schools close to home, but consider applying to one or two that are further away but seem to be a perfect fit otherwise. That way, if your comfort level changes, you’ll have a choice or two that reflects this.


5. Getting Caught Up in the Rankings

It’s gratifying to receive recognition for all the hard work and commitment you’ve put forth during your four years of high school. Many students want to get into a top-ten school because they feel it’s the ultimate reflection and recognition of their success. But don’t get caught in this dangerous pattern of thinking. Your priority should be finding a school that is a great match for your interests and values and not solely receiving an acceptance letter from a school whose name will elicit admiration and praise.


Ranking colleges is an imprecise science to begin with. The organizations that do the ranking take many, many factors into consideration, some of which may ultimately be completely irrelevant to you. Most of the time, the student experience at these schools plays only a small role in its ranking, and even so — you are a unique individual, so no other student’s experience should be used as a barometer for your potential success at a school.


Instead, focus on what is most important to you, and don’t ignore that feeling in your gut that just tells you when something feels like a good match. The college you attend should feel like home, and ultimately your experience at any school will be personal, not based on rankings.    


If you’re a high school student who is currently narrowing down your college list, keep these five common mistakes in mind as you navigate your path towards college.


For more information about choosing your college, check out these CollegeVine posts:


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
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.