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)

The Ultimate Guide to Making a Balanced College List

What’s Covered:


Any high schooler thinking about college has probably heard the term “college list” before. Parents and guidance counselors will ask “Have you thought about your college list yet?” while students will worry “Is my school list long enough? Is it too long?”. 


But whether you are familiar with the concept or it’s still foreign to you, by the time your turn to build a college list rolls around, it can be incredibly daunting. We’re here to alleviate some of the stress that comes along with building a college list by breaking it down step by step.


You can consider this post your ultimate guide to building a college list!


Why Do You Need a College List?


College lists are comprehensive lists of all the schools you are applying to. Writing down everywhere you are applying helps you to:


  1. See if you have a balanced list with safeties, targets, and reaches
  2. Explore schools you might not have originally considered
  3. Keep track of what you need to get done once you start filling out applications. 


Having a list of schools you are considering will also make it easy to refer back to when you need to do research or have conversations with your guidance counselor or college advisor. We recommend storing your list somewhere easily accessible like a word document or spreadsheet. You can also use CollegeVine’s free online school list builder to simultaneously organize your schools, research colleges, and see your individual chances of acceptance.


When Should You Start Your College List?


There is no perfect time when you should start making a college list—if anything, it’s a good idea to casually research colleges during your freshman and sophomore years and keep a list of ones you are interested in. However, you really shouldn’t concern yourself with actually putting together a list until your junior year.


You should have a finalized list by the time you start senior year, that way you know exactly where you are applying and only have to worry about applications, not researching schools. Every student will have an individual timeline that works for them, but this is a general one you can use to see if you are on track:


  • 9th grade: There’s no need to take anything too seriously in terms of finding specific colleges, but start asking yourself questions about how you learn best, what kind of social environments you prefer, and what type of locations/climates you enjoy. If you have an older sibling going on college tours, it might be a good idea to join, if you can, just to get a sense of different campus vibes.


  • 10th grade: Continue asking yourself questions about what you want from a college and start thinking more about what major or career you might want to pursue. By the end of your sophomore year, you might want to tour a few colleges over summer break to get a headstart, but you still have plenty of time.


  • 11th grade: By junior year, college will be more prevalent in your personal zeitgeist, so you should start researching schools more seriously. Based on the factors you’ve considered for the past two years, start using search tools to filter schools by your criteria. You should also start attending college fairs or meet with college representatives who visit your school. It’s also smart to use school breaks to go on college tours to get a feel for the schools you are considering and demonstrate your interest.


  • Summer before 12th grade: Now is the time to edit and finalize your college list. You might have to research more safeties to add, cut down on the number of schools on your list, or add/remove schools based on your changing preferences. This is also the perfect time to tour schools if you haven’t had the chance before now.


  • 12th grade: Your school list should be close to finalized by the time the fall rolls around. It’s a good idea to meet with your guidance counselor to go over your list and make sure it’s well-balanced and the right length. Depending on how admissions decisions play out, you might have to add more schools to apply to at the last minute, so it might be smart to include a few schools on a backup list if you are concerned about that.


How Many Schools Should You Apply To?


The top question when it comes to building a school list is: “How many schools should I apply to?” We’re sorry to say, but there’s no magic number; every student has their own circumstances that will impact how many colleges they have on their list. There are, however, general guidelines we recommend all students to follow that you can adapt to fit your needs.


The ideal number of colleges to have on a list is anywhere from 8-12 schools. We advise against applying to less than 5 schools and more than 15 schools. However, a large limiting factor is the number of essays you can write, so if you feel you can write quickly or you’re applying to schools without essays, you could apply to more if you want. Also remember that you have to pay a fee just to apply to most schools, so the more schools you apply to, the more expensive it can get.


So, you are applying to 8-12 schools, but not every school is created equally. In order to have a balanced list that gives you the best chances of being accepted, you need to have a mix of safeties, targets, and reaches on your list. 


Safeties are schools where you have an 80% chance of admission or higher, normally because your academics surpass the 75th percentile of accepted students. We recommend aiming for 2-4 safeties.


Targets are schools where your personal chances of acceptance range from 30% to 80%, and your profile typically falls into the middle 50%. You should have at least 4 targets.


Reaches are the most selective colleges where your chances of acceptance are less than 30%. It’s important to note that any school with a general acceptance rate below 10% should be considered a reach, regardless of if your academics fall into the middle 50% or exceed it. You should aim for at least 2 reaches.


You can calculate your individual odds of acceptance with CollegeVine’s free chancing engine.


In light of the Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action in June 2023, we recommend that students of color add at least 1-2 additional safeties to their list. This will bring the total number of safeties you should have closer to four to six. For more information on how the end of affirmative action will impact your admissions chances, check out our post, What the End of Affirmative Action Means for Students.


7 Top Factors to Consider When Making Your List


Before you start making a school list, you need to consider what type of college you are looking for. Below are the seven most important things to think about.


1. School Size


Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a big pond? Colleges in the U.S. range from student body sizes in the hundreds to over 60,000 students!


Smaller schools offer benefits like smaller class sizes, tight-knit community, more individualized attention, and a less overwhelming experience. On the other hand, large colleges can have more resources and academic offerings, more extracurricular opportunities, extensive alumni networks, anonymity in class, and tend to have more school spirit.


2. Location


When it comes to location, there are two parts you need to think about. The first is the physical location of the school. Do you want to be within a few hours drive from home or do you want to travel to a completely different part of the country? What type of climate do you prefer? Do you enjoy the seasons of the Northeast or would you prefer to go to the beach after class year round? Would attending a state school be cheaper?


The other aspect you need to consider is whether you want an urban, suburban, or rural school. If you love the idea of living in a big city, you might consider an urban school like NYU, but if having a large, secluded campus is important, you should look into suburban and rural colleges.


3. Academic Offerings


College can be some of the best years of your life from all the extracurricular and social opportunities at your fingertips, but it’s still an academic experience that shouldn’t be overlooked when you are building a school list. Some important academic factors to consider include:


  • What majors and minors does the school offer?
  • Do you prefer lectures or discussion-based classes?
  • What is the median class size?
  • Do you want a core curriculum or freedom to take any classes?
  • Are there internship and study abroad programs available?
  • Are there distinguished faculty you want to work with?
  • What type of extracurriculars could you join that relate to your academic interests?
  • Is there an honors college or special program you would be interested in?
  • What is the academic reputation of this institution?


4. Cost 


Although not as fun as some of the other topics, the cost and affordability of a college has to be weighed equally in your decision making process. College is not cheap, especially if you are considering selective private universities that can cost upwards of $70,000 a year!


Keep in mind however, that the sticker price isn’t necessarily the price you’ll pay. Many expensive private colleges offer generous financial aid. This is especially true for no-loan colleges and those that meet 100% demonstrated need. You can check your expected costs by using each school’s net price calculator.


It’s important to sit down with your parents or guardians and have a genuine conversation about who is paying for college and how much you are willing to pay. Look into financial aid policies, scholarships, and grants when you are researching schools to make sure you could afford the schools you are adding to your list. You might want to consider adding safeties that you are overqualified at if you know they give generous scholarships.


5. Demographics of the Student Body


You can find anything from all-women’s colleges, to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to Hispanic Serving Institutions, to LGBTQ+ friendly schools, to colleges affiliated with all types of religious denominations. Whether you want to be surrounded by students from similar backgrounds as yourself or you want to embrace diversity, you should look into the demographics of schools and consider what type of environment you want to be in.


6. Campus Life


Campus life encompasses a lot of different factors. You can look for schools that fit specific requirements you have or determine the general vibe of campus life you prefer.


Extracurriculars are an important part of campus life. How many clubs are available? Are there opportunities for you to continue playing your sport if you’re not on the varsity team? How competitive are extracurriculars? Do you want to attend a school with Greek life? 


Also think about residential life and the school’s party culture. Do you want to live on campus all four years? Do students live in co-ed dorms? How important is school spirit to you? Would you enjoy a party school? Do you want a school where students go out to frats or bars?


You might also want to consider the political and religious culture of the school. Do you want a strict environment with a code of conduct all students have to follow? Would you prefer a school that has a student body that is more liberal or conservative? Is it important for you to be surrounded by religious values and people who share your beliefs?


7. Post-College Outcomes


It’s also important to think about your future beyond college when building your school list. Look into information like the average starting salary for graduates and what type of careers are popular for students to enter.


If you want to go to grad school, you should think about the reputation of the school among grad schools and what types of resources are available to help you prepare for grad school, such as specific advising. You should also think about joint bachelors/masters programs and if you want to attend a certain school for undergrad to increase your chances of getting into their graduate school.


6 Steps to Build a College List


1. Decide What’s Important to You


The first step in building your college list is to go through each of the 7 factors listed above in detail and determine what you want from your college experience. This process shouldn’t happen in one sitting—you should be thinking through what you like and value during your freshman, sophomore, and junior years. 


Have realistic conversations with yourself, your parents, and your guidance counselors about what you want because you might not be able to get everything. Figure out which factors are non-negotiables for you and which you don’t care about as much. Taking time to fully flesh out this first step will make the subsequent ones a thousand times easier.


2. Research Schools That Match Your Criteria


Once you know what you are looking for in a school, it’s time to start researching! The best way to do this is to use a website that allows you to apply as many filters as you like to narrow down schools that fit your criteria, such as CollegeVine! You can also attend college fairs, ask your guidance counselor for recommendations that fit your preferences, and talk to family and friends who have attended schools similar to ones you are considering.


Keep in mind that you probably won’t find 15-20 schools that match every single one of your preferences, so play around with your filters and see all the different options that populate. You can also look at lists of colleges that meet some of your non-negotiable criteria, for example in-state schools or colleges with strong music programs.


3. Compile a Large List of Schools


As you research, begin compiling a preliminary list of schools that you are interested in. This is your first draft of your college list. For the first draft, bigger is better. Aim for anywhere between 15 and 30 schools on this list; the more options you have at the beginning the easier it will be to narrow them down to schools you absolutely love. 


To help with building your school list, you can use CollegeVine’s free school list builder


4. Sort Schools Into Safeties, Targets, and Reaches


The next step is to take your initial list and start sorting these colleges into safety schools, targets, and reaches. CollegeVine’s free chancing engine is the perfect tool for this occasion, taking into account your GPA, test scores, class rigor, extracurriculars, and personal factors to produce your chance of acceptance at over 1,600 colleges. The schools you look at will automatically be sorted into a safety, target, or reach depending on your chances.


5. Narrow Down Your List


Now that you have a list of 15-30 schools sorted into safeties, targets, and reaches, it’s time to cut your list down so it’s closer to 8-12 colleges. This process can be hard, but here are a few tips to help you:


  • Re-research each school thoroughly: Go beyond the preliminary details you’ll find on ranking lists and visit each school’s website, look at news stories that pertain to the school, read college books and brochures, and consult websites like Reddit to hear students’ perspectives (although don’t take Reddit too seriously).


  • Watch student vlogs, faq videos, and day-in-the-lifes: Hearing from current students is incredibly helpful in determining if a school is the right fit for you. Luckily, you can do that easily through YouTube and TikTok and find videos of students talking about their experience at hundreds of schools.


  • Go on college visits: Undoubtedly, the best way to get a feel for a school is to step on the campus and talk to real students and faculty. Although it likely won’t be possible for you to visit every school on your larger list, try to hit a few to get a feel for whether that specific school or type of campus vibe is what you actually want.


  • Look into financial factors: You might have originally added a school because it fit all of your criteria, but upon further inspection, it might be unrealistic for your family to afford. Research the estimated cost for each school on your list and whether there are aid or scholarships available.


  • Make sure your list is balanced: If your initial list consisted of 15 reaches, 3 targets, and 2 safeties, you’re going to need to cut down your reaches and make your list more proportional. For every reach, you should have 2 targets and 1-2 safeties.


6. Go Back and Fill in Any Gaps


Once you’ve narrowed your list down, you might realize you’re missing safeties or you cut down a bunch of your reaches. The final step is to reassess and add any schools you might need to ensure your college list is well-balanced. This step will likely be an ongoing process that will take you to the fall of your senior year because your preferences might shift and change as you do more research and go on more college tours. 


Building a college list is a long process, but if you take the time to give each step your thorough attention, you will have a strong list of schools you would be happy to attend. 


Short Bio
Lauryn is a student at Cornell University. She has been working at CollegeVine for over three years as a blog writer and editor.