There’s a wealth of information out there about what to consider when choosing a college – ranging from how to choose between going to a school on the east or west coast to determining what type of degree is right for you.

But for all this advice on what to consider when picking a college, or even when choosing which colleges to apply to, there’s little advice on how to actually make a college list. Where are you supposed to look? Who are you supposed to talk to? Should you just Google “good colleges” and hope for the best?

Thankfully, we at Admissions Hero have your back. Here’s all you need to know to properly research for and finalize your college list.

Why is Making a College List Important?

Chances are, if you’re a high achieving student, you already have a couple schools you’re planning on applying to even before you reach your senior year. Pretty much everyone knows the big ones: the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Duke, Caltech, etc. Many students’ strategy is to apply to a few of these top schools and then apply to a few state schools as backups. Students often choose their safety schools with little thought, defaulting to their state’s flagship public school or that of a neighboring state.

This application strategy is flawed, however. Given the high number of applicants with perfect or near-perfect grades, test scores, and extracurricular profiles, all students should consider top schools like Ivys “reach schools” – schools where the stats of the average freshman admit are above those of the applicant. Many high-achieving students who carelessly select their backup schools because they’re confident they’ll be admitted to their top choice can be left in a tricky situation if things don’t go according to plan.

For this reason, it’s crucial to not only be smart about your safety schools, but to also have at least 2 schools on your college list that are “target schools” – schools where the stats of the average freshman admit are approximately equal to those of the applicant. If you’re an extremely ambitious student, target schools can provide the academic rigor you seek but aren’t as unpredictable in their admissions decisions as schools like Harvard or Stanford. However, being smart in your safety and target school selections can take a good amount of research. How to begin?

How to Structure Your College List

 Before focusing on any specific schools, it’s important to note how you should approach the proportions of safety, target, and reach schools on your college list. Ideally, students should apply to 2-3 safety schools, 3-4 target schools, and 2-5 reach schools.

Overloading on reach schools and neglecting target and safety schools can result in students being forced to attend carelessly chosen safeties or community college. Alternately, students who apply to many safety and target schools out of a desire to “cover all their bases” may not have adequate time to devote to perfecting their applications for reach schools.

 Where to Look for Colleges

The best resource to you in making your college list is the Internet, which features of variety of different platforms, search engines, and ranking sites to help you narrow down your choices. We’ll discuss Internet resources in depth in the next section!

The Internet is not the only resource available to you, however. Teachers, friends, family, guidance counselors, and more can offer valuable advice on which schools might make a good fit. If your school has a college center (or guidance office), it can be one of the best tools available to you in your college search – such offices usually have materials colleges have released specifically for prospective students, which can help you learn more about schools than what you can find online.

When taking the PSAT, SAT, or an AP test, you probably were given the option to opt in to the College Board’s Student Search Service. While this service does not release your scores, grades, or extracurricular interests to colleges, it does share your contact information with schools where your academic profile is similar to that of their typical applicant. The Student Search Service can be a great way to learn about new schools and learn about upcoming events with admissions officers in your area.

Finally, many high schools offer college fairs or presentations from specific schools for prospective students. Be sure to be on the lookout for events like this at yours or a neighboring high school, as speaking directly with representatives from schools can be the best way to learn what you need to know as a potential applicant.

Online Resources Available to You

College Search Services

There are many online college search services, such as the College Board’s Big FutureTM that allow you to input information like your grades, test scores, political affiliations, prospective major, desired location, and more. These services then use this information to find schools that fit your needs, interests, and academic/extracurricular profile. This is a great way of selecting target schools, as the programs match your GPA and scores to those of the typical admit, as well as finding new schools that you may not have heard of otherwise.

Programs like this sometimes determine your “chances of admission”, assigning a percentage of similar figure of your shot at admission. It’s important to keep in mind that no current computer program, no matter how advanced, can do the job of admissions committee; for that matter, neither can any person other than the admissions officers themselves. Accordingly, any and all “chances of admission” as determined by online resources currently on the web should be taken with a grain of salt.

Scholarship Searches

If you’re interested in receiving merit scholarships, you can specifically seek out schools that offer generous merit scholarship packages to students for grades, athletics, or other special skills through online search programs. You can also find scholarships awarded by nonprofits or corporations that are awarded to students for extracurricular accomplishments, prospective majors, and more. GoodCall provides a useful scholarship finder.  College Board’s Big FutureTM also features a scholarship search engine, but there are numerous other sites, like fastweb.com, that offer similar services.

Rankings

The Princeton Review and other ranking websites offer college rankings on everything from religious life to LGBT resources, dining hall food to social life. If you’ve exhausted the above criteria and still can’t narrow down your list, think about what aspects of student life are important to you and seek out colleges that perform well in these areas. US News and World Report is also famous for its college rankings, which are grouped by region, major, and other academic factors.

Online Forums

There is an enormous cache of college advice from students, parents, teachers, admissions officers, and more online. Probably the most widely used forum for discussions of college admissions is College Confidential, which features thousands of threads on everything from how to write the best essay for MIT to which extracurriculars are best for Northwestern’s School of Journalism.

A word of warning about forums like this: it’s a common practice for students to “chance” each other ­– that is, list their extracurricular and academic profiles and then ask other members to comment upon their admissions chances. The issue is that you can never be sure who is really chancing you, so it’s best not to take the opinions of other students or parents at face value.

 

Making a college list can be as daunting as applying for college itself; there’s so much to consider, and it can be difficult to distinguish what makes applying to one school a better choice than another. At the end of the day, finding the right college for you is all about research. There are so many resources at your fingertips if you know where to look – be sure utilize all the sources available to you, especially the Internet. If you’re well-informed about student life, academics, and admissions information at your prospective colleges, you’ll be setting yourself up for a successful application season and a productive, exciting four years at a college you love.

 

Anamaria Lopez

Anamaria Lopez

Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
Anamaria Lopez