Beginning your search for a great college is no easy task. It might even seem overwhelming at first. There are over 7,000 institutions of secondary education in the United States, and while some may be common household names, many others will no doubt be new to you. If you’re just beginning to look at colleges, you might be wondering where to start.

 

Making a college list is an integral part of anyone’s college search. This list should represent your values and priorities while staying true to your profile as an applicant. There are many different factors that should weigh into your decision, and ultimately what works best for you will be different from what works for your friends. You’ll need to think carefully about where you see yourself headed in the next few years and how you see yourself getting there.

 

Some students start creating their college list as early as freshman or sophomore year. This is a good idea because it gives you plenty of time to carefully consider your options and learn more about colleges that you hadn’t heard of before. Ultimately, though, if you do start making your college list this early, you’ll need to be flexible and realize that it is a work in progress. You will change and grow in many ways throughout your high school career, and your list will need to change and grow with you.

 

Other students don’t begin their college list until junior or even senior year. While this gives you less time to learn about the options that are out there, it doesn’t have to put you at a distinct disadvantage if you use your resources wisely and have a strategic approach to creating your college list.

 

In this post we will outline our seven top tips for creating a college list, whether you are starting as a freshman with tons of time ahead or as a rising senior who feels pressured to create a list as soon as possible. Here, we’ll introduce seven of the top considerations and resources that we recommend taking advantage of while you undertake the important task of creating a college list.

 

1. Balance Your Choices

 

In order to create a list that works well for you and represents strong choices for your college education, you’ll need to include a balanced selection of options. This means that some colleges on your list should be more selective than others. This makes sense if you think about it—a college list that contains only highly selective schools could easily become a big mistake if you don’t get into any of them.

 

We recommend a making a list that includes 2-3 safety schools, 4-5 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools. Your standardized test scores and GPA should place you at or above the 75th percentile in admitted student scores at safety schools, at or above the 50th percentile in admitted student scores at target schools, and at or above the 25th percentile in admitted student scores at reach schools. This way, your choices represent nearly the complete range of selectivity to which you could expect to gain admission.

 

It’s also important to know that regardless of your academic profile, a highly selective college should always be considered a reach. It’s sometimes said that a school such as Harvard could fill its entire freshman class with students who achieved a perfect SAT score. For this reason, regardless of how high your test scores and grades are, schools like Harvard and its peers are always considered a reach. There are just too many other factors at play in their admissions process to place them anywhere else on your list.

 

Another important thing to note about the balance on your college list is that each choice should represent a desirable option. Don’t place schools on your list as safety schools if you have no actual desire to attend them. Some students have a tendency to think of these schools as last resorts, but really they should be just as desirable and considered just as carefully as reach or target schools. With so many options to choose from, there’s no reason to include a school on your list that isn’t a great fit for you.

 

2. Consider Your Interests and Career Ambitions

 

Some of the most heavily weighted factors as you narrow down your list should be your interests and career ambitions. Specifically, you will need to choose schools that provide strong programs in majors that interest you.

 

You should also think about the campus resources and activities that will make your next four years enjoyable. Ask yourself what you will do in your free time, what clubs you’re interested in, and what other priorities are especially important in making your next four years a positive experience. 

 

Carefully consider your interests and passions to find a school that can provide you with the academic and extracurricular resources that will make you both happy and successful.







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3. Educate Yourself About Options

 

It’s nearly impossible to get to know every single undergraduate institution in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do your best to learn about as many plausible options for you as you can. Luckily, there are many search tools to help you along the way.

 

One great resource for narrowing your options is the Big Future. This free service from the College Board aims to provide tools that are helpful for planning your future. These include a college search feature that allows you to filter by location, major, selectivity, and almost any other important factor. It also offers help for students who aren’t quite sure where to begin by providing some questions to help you frame your thinking.

 

While many big or well-known colleges are recognizable by name, there are hundreds of lesser-known schools that are also great options. Make an effort to learn about these sleeper schools, as they can sometimes present ideal options for students who might not have otherwise known they existed.

 

4. Get Some Outside Perspectives

 

It’s important to talk with parents and mentors about your priorities and values and how these will weigh into your college search. While no one can speak directly to your personal experiences, many adults in your life have likely had their own experiences in secondary education from which they will be able to provide some additional insight. 

 

Beyond the perspective of having gone through college already, these people might have important connections that can help you in your search. For example, a teacher or mentor might be able to put you in contact with a current student or recent graduate from some of the schools on your list. Alternatively, he or she may also be aware of other, similar schools that you haven’t already considered.

 

Finally, sometimes talking about your priorities and values allows you to evaluate them in ways that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Simply by putting them into words, you might begin to see them in a new light.

 

5. Keep an Open Mind

 

Some students have a precise idea of what they’re looking for in a college. This ideal may be a fairly recent realization, or it could be a dream college they’ve been thinking about since childhood. Whatever the case may be, it’s sometimes easy to get wrapped up in your dream school.

 

While dream schools aren’t a bad thing, try to keep an open mind so that you aren’t overly wrapped up in any one single school. Even if you’ve got your heart set on a high profile elite college, there are probably dozens of others that are similar in academic rigor, size, or any other important factor.

 

Also, remember that it’s totally possible for your priorities to change between the time when you create a college list and when you actually move onto campus. For this reason, it’s best to keep some options open. Don’t exclude a school too early in the process if it’s a very close fit but lacking in just one particular aspect.

 

For example, you might initially think that you want to stay close to home, but you’ll no doubt have a handful of other important priorities too. If you find a school that is the perfect fit, but it happens to be in another state, it’s a good idea to keep it on the back burner for a while. A lot can change in a few months, and you don’t actually have to commit to a school until you send in a deposit.

 

6. Get More Details

 

Once you have gathered an initial list of schools that you’re interested in, and you’ve narrowed it down to some final options to consider, try to gather some inside perspective to help make your final decisions.

 

If possible, visit the campus to get a feel for student life. If you can’t visit the campus, consider exploring it through an online campus tour. One popular site providing this service is eCampus Tours. Here, you’ll find a virtual tour of over 1,300 colleges searchable by state.

 

Another good alternative is a college fair, where you can speak with admissions representatives and get answers to your important questions. If you can’t attend a college fair in person, College Week Live provides the opportunity to participate in live, online chats with admissions representatives or current students at schools you’re considering. Check out their Event Schedule to see when specific schools will be participating.

 

By using all the tools available, you’ll get a more balanced perspective to help inform your final choice.

 

7. Know How to Weigh the Rankings

 

Some college rankings are highly publicized. Schools love to be able to boast about their high ranking, and indeed, rankings can provide a lot of information about a school.

But ultimately, a ranking should only matter as far as it is personally relevant to you. Your personal experience will always vary from the statistics, and even the number one school in the country will be a bad match for students who prefer a different learning experience.

 

Think about which factors in a ranking matter the most to you. You might consider class size, teacher to student ratio, percent of students who graduate within four years, percent of students who live on campus, or any other ranking parameter. Consider each in its broader context and make your own list of rankings based on what’s most important to you.

 

Creating a college list can be a daunting undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be. When you approach the process thoughtfully and logically, you will quickly be able to narrow your choices to a final list of colleges that is balanced appropriately and represents a true reflection of your values and goals.

 

If you’re a high school student who is just getting started with your college list, or one who feels like you need a little help in the final planning stages, check out CollegeVine’s Applications Guidance service. Here, you’ll be paired with a personal admissions specialist who can provide step-by-step guidance through the entire application process, including how to best highlight your unique skills and activities.

 

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

 

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
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.
Kate Sundquist