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)

What Makes a Good College List?

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Compiling a strong college list of the schools that you’ll ultimately apply to is an integral part of the college application. A strong college list is necessary if you want to get into and then attend a college that suits you well on a number of different levels. There are many factors that go into creating a college list, and it’s easy to see how some students can become overwhelmed at the prospect of such a high stakes endeavor.


In this post, we break down the factors that you’ll need to consider as you compile a good college list. To learn more about the many different angles you’ll need to consider, keep reading.


1. Geographical Location

Where do you want to attend college? Some students want or need to attend a college that is close to home. Others flourish by going to college far away. You’ll also want to consider the climate. How important is it to you to be someplace warm or someplace with snow? Some students even have a regional preference, feeling more at home in the south or in New England. For more on choosing a geographical location, check out The Pros and Cons of Attending College Close vs Far From Home.


2. Selectivity of College

Many students want to attend a college that is viewed as elite or want to get into the most selective college possible. This can be a motivational challenge, but you’ll need to honestly evaluate your academic and personal profile to decide if this is the right choice for you. Have you considered the level of stress you are able to handle during when senior year when you’re juggling applications, deadlines, and waiting for notifications? How resilient are you? Does your college list represent a balance of reach, target, and safety schools?


3. The Prestige Factor

Some people believe that going to a well-known or respected college is the ticket to a lifetime of success. Others simply yearn for approval from others. Does it matter to you if your peers have heard of the university? This is often referred to as the prestige factor, but it’s important to realize that where you go to college is not as important as you think in the long run. Many students from lesser known schools go on to achieve amazing feats or ultimately get into top notch graduate schools.


4. Academic Climate

Considering the academic climate of a school is important if you want to be comfortable there. Think about if you are more academically competitive or collaborative, and how this will fit with the climate at your school. Do you thrive under academic pressure or do you want or need a more balanced feel? What academic support is available should you struggle with a class?


5. Size of Undergraduate Student Population

Think about whether your high school is large or small, and how you feel about it. Is it important to you to recognize faces as you walk through campus or would you rather have some anonymity? Have you visited small, medium, and large schools and what was your general opinion of them?


6. Physical Location & Physical Size

In addition to a college’s geographical location, you’ll also want to think about its physical setting. Do you prefer large and urban locale with tons of public transportation and a city at your fingertips or are you more comfortable in a rural community with a small-town vibe? Do you want to be within an hour of a city or major airport? Do you prefer access to green spaces, mountains, the ocean, or another setting?

7. Social Atmosphere

Think about the climate of campus life and consider which elements are most important to you. Do you want a campus that is politically active? What activities are most prevalent on campus, and how do these compare with your own interests? Does drug and alcohol use concern you? How about the male/female ratio? These smaller aspects of campus climate can end up being very important when you’re living in the midst of them each day.


8. Student & Professor Interaction

What class size do you feel most comfortable in? Do you prefer large lectures to roundtable discussions, or vice versa? Do you want to interact directly with professors or will grad students and other assistants be able to meet your needs? See our post Should Student-Teacher Ratio Matter When I’m Choosing a College? to learn more.


9. Participant Learning

The learning environment and opportunities for collaboration vary widely from school to school. Do you feel most engaged when you can openly discuss ideas? Do you want the opportunity to participate in publishable research? Think about hands-on learning opportunities and how they will fit with your ultimate career goals or areas of study.


10. Athletics

Are you interested in college sports, and if so, at what level do you anticipate participating? Think about NCAA Divisions I, II, and III, and also consider NAIA. Do you have the talent/ability to be recruited? If you don’t care about participating in varsity sports, are you interested in joining an intercollegiate club team? Do you want school spirit related to athletics? Sports can be a factor even if you don’t identify as an athlete. If you’re considering playing sports in college, be sure to read High School Athletes: 4 Things To Consider When Making a Verbal Commitment.


11. Life Outside the Classroom

You will want to attend a college that allows you to pursue your hobbies and interests, whether this is through school clubs, by using school resources, or simply by having the free time for personal pursuits. If you’re interested in joining a fraternity or sorority, you’ll want to find a school with some presence of Greek life. Do you want to participate in community service—if so, what opportunities are available? Think about if the activities you want to pursue need to be on campus or in the surrounding area, and what access you’ll likely have to them.


12. Religious Affiliation

If religion is a big part of your life, you will want to have a religious community nearby, possible even on campus. If you don’t identify as religious, do you prefer a school with no religious affiliation? Many religious colleges accept students from all backgrounds, so you may need to look beyond religious affiliation to find out how present religion is in campus life.


13. College Cost & Financial Aid

Many students don’t begin to think about the costs of attending college until much later in the college process. Start thinking about it as you make your college list if you know that finances will be a concern. Do you need financial aid for college? Will an in-state school allow you to graduate debt-free? These are important questions to think about. Be sure to read Tuition vs. Total Cost of Attendance: Understanding Your College Expenses to learn more about college costs.


14. Advanced Standing

Many colleges provide college credit or advanced standing for students who have passed AP or IB classes, or community college classes. If you have done this, or anticipate doing it by the time you attend college, think about which universities will accept these credits. Ultimately, you might be able to place out of introductory classes or save money by taking fewer credits.


15. Course of Study/Availability of Major

One very important factor could be the programs of study available at a college. Are all your areas of interest or potential majors offered? How about double majors, minors, professional certificate programs, liberal studies, interdisciplinary studies or combined BA/MA degrees? If you don’t know what you want to major in, is academic advising available for undeclared students?


Once you have considered all of the above factors, you’ll need to rank them according to preference. Which factors matter the most to you personally, and which could be ones that you compromise on or take it or leave it?


At the same time, you parents should be considering the same factors so that you can compare your preference. Do you have similar expectations going into the college list process? What are the similarities and differences? Use these to spark a conversation and find common ground.


For more about creating a college list, don’t miss these posts:


Choosing a College: How to Get Started

Seven Tips for Creating Your College List

Five Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Your College List

10 Considerations For Making Your College List


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

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.