At CollegeVine, we’re definitely in favor of getting started early on the process of preparing for college application season. Applying to competitive colleges is a time-consuming process that deserves your full attention, so it’s important that you give yourself enough time to do your applications justice.

 

One task that will be part of your college planning process is choosing which colleges belong on your personal college list. As we recently mentioned in our post 10 Considerations For Making Your College List, there are over 7,000 institutions in the United States that offer post-secondary degrees, so you’ll obviously have to narrow it down quite a bit.

 

If you’re still in ninth or tenth grade and in the early stages of preparing for college, you may be wondering when to get started with this process of narrowing down your college choices. The short answer is that you can start working on your college list early in high school, but you need to think of it as an evolving document that’s responsive to changes in your college goals.

 

Read on for more information about why you should start working on your college list early and how to stay flexible when planning where to apply to college.

 


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What’s my college list?

 

When we talk about your “college list,” we generally mean the list of colleges to which you’re interested in applying. Eventually, your college list will become a fixed set of schools—between around six and a dozen, for most students—to which you’ll actually submit applications during your senior year.

 

Your college list will be divided into three categories—target schools, reach schools, and safety schools—based on your likelihood of admission to each school. It’s important to have an appropriate range of schools on your list. (Take a look at our post The College List, Decoded: Safety, Target, and Reach Schools for more information on these categories.)  

 

Which schools end up on your college list is a function of many different variables, potentially including academic requirements, selectivity, cost, location, size, financial aid availability, the unique opportunities each school offers, and many others. Colleges might land on your list for practical reasons, or due to less tangible features like the school’s campus atmosphere.

 

Overall, though, all the colleges on your list should be schools that genuinely interest you, that you feel positively about, and that are good matches to your applicant profile and college needs. Each of the schools on your list should be somewhere that you can actually see yourself attending.  

 

By the time you submit your applications, you’ll need to have a finalized and concrete college list. However, when you’re starting out, your list definitely doesn’t have to be so rigid. Early on, it can also function as a way to keep track of which colleges interest you, what factors are important to you in choosing a college, and what your application process might eventually look like.

 

Starting early on your college list

 

It’s a great idea to get started planning for college and the demands of the college application process well before your application deadlines. As we’ve talked about previously in our post Is Freshman Year Too Early to Start College Planning?, there are significant benefits that come with starting your college research and preparation early on. 

 

There are limits on what you can do when you’re planning for college early in high school. For instance, you can’t actually start filling out your college application forms until the fall of your senior year of high school. Also, it’s usually not a good idea to take your standardized tests before your junior year—if you wait until later in high school, your scores will likely be higher.  

 

However, there’s a lot of work that can be done early on. Below, we’ll go over a few ways that you can work on your college list in your first two years of high school. 

 

Research colleges that look interesting

You can research the requirements of college applications, get an idea of what your favorite colleges will ask of you, and make sure that you’re on track to fulfill their requirements. Knowing as much as possible about the colleges in which you’re interested will help you to make informed decisions later on.

Identify schools to aim for

Having particular schools in mind when you’re preparing for college applications can also be a significant motivator for you. If you know that your dream schools have high expectations for their applicants, this can inspire you to work hard and challenge yourself in high school in order to make yourself a better applicant for those schools.

Setting goals early in high school gives you something specific for which to aim. No matter which colleges you eventually apply to, it’s still beneficial for you to set these high goals—your accomplishments will be an asset to you in applying to any college.

Allow for time to change your plans

Starting early on making your college list gives you plenty of time to collect information, make thoughtful decisions, and, if necessary, change your mind. If the information you gather leads to a change of heart about a college you initially thought was a good match for you, it’s best to learn this well before you invest your time and effort in that school’s application.

Starting early gives you time to make new plans without having to scramble at the last minute, both in terms of ruling out certain colleges and in terms of finding previously unknown-to-you colleges that appeal to you. Putting together a competitive college application takes time, so adding a college to your list at the eleventh hour won’t give you a good opportunity to make that application the best it can be.

 

Staying flexible when planning ahead for college

 

As you can see, there’s nothing wrong with starting to formulate your college list early on— in fact, doing so is a good idea. However, in order for this plan to be effective in helping you to manage your college applications, it’s essential that you be open to making changes to your college list in its earliest incarnations.

 

Overall, flexibility is an important quality to have during the college admissions process. You may not be accepted to the colleges at the top of your list, so adjusting your plans is something you need to be able to do in order to meet the challenges with which you’ll be faced.

 

Your teenage years are a time for growing and learning, and many people find that their plans and goals change over the course of high school, sometimes dramatically. As you discover new academic and career options, gain life experience, and get to know yourself better, your college plans will evolve as well.

 

Your unfolding high school career will also determine which colleges belong on your list, and in which categories. For instance, your cumulative GPA and the details of your academic performance will help to decide which colleges are appropriate target schools for you.

 

As we’ve discussed, a major benefit of starting early is that it gives you time to change your mind, and this is an opportunity that you should embrace. You need to make sure that you don’t lock yourself into one particular plan too soon; even if you feel pretty sure about your college and career ambitions, you still have a great deal to learn and experience, and you might find a different field or plan that you end up liking even more.

 

When you’re in ninth or tenth grade, you shouldn’t try to make any concrete determinations about where you’re going to apply to college. It’s simply too early for you to make a fully informed decision about what you intend to do with your next few years, much less the rest of your life.

 

What you need to do is keep a running college list and adapt that list as your situation changes. Use it as a way to keep track of colleges that interest you, compare different colleges, and consider what characteristics are important to you when choosing a college. Having this information available to you in an organized and accessible format can only help you as you endeavor to set appropriate goals for the rest of your high school experience and beyond.

 

It’s not too early to start making your college list, as long as you keep in mind that the key word is start, and that it’s not yet time to make any definite decisions. A flexible college list with room for changes makes the best guide for college planning early in high school.

 

For more information

 

At CollegeVine, we’re committed to providing information and assistance not only for students who are actively involved in the college application process, but also for motivated students who want to start their college planning process well in advance.

 

Check out these posts on our blog for more guidance on the early stages of college planning and making a useful, well-thought-out college list.

 

 

Looking for one-on-one help with identifying your interests, setting appropriate goals, and staying on track to achieve them? CollegeVine’s Student Mentorship Program can match you with a current college student whose job is to help you navigate the often-stressful world of college preparation. Learn more about our Student Mentorship Program.

Monikah Schuschu

Monikah Schuschu

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.
Monikah Schuschu