Updated: Dec 3, 2020
There are over 4,000 colleges in the United States alone and thousands more around the world. Creating your ideal college list can be daunting but it does not need to be complicated. Follow these guidelines to create the college list that is right for you:
Start early and enjoy the ride.
Most likely your college list will start small and get big or it will start big and get small. Both ways work and there is no right or wrong. Either way, by the fall of senior year, you should have a pretty good idea of the schools on your refined college list and this list will inspire the remainder of your college admissions journey. But leading up to that, during junior year and the summer before senior year, time will be precious.You will be busy with testing, extracurricular activities, school activities, and most of all, doing your best, one last time, on your high school academics. In order to avoid a last minute crunch, as early as freshman or sophomore year, start looking at colleges when it is easy and fun. Casual visits that are done in a relaxed way are better than a jam packed schedule of multiple visits under pressure. Don’t wait too long to start or you risk missing out on schools that could be the best fit for you.
Be open minded and find your fit.
When you start thinking about your list, there will be many schools that you have heard of. You may know the schools because of their sports teams, or their famous alumni, or you may have friends or family that have attended a particular school. This is all great, but the perfect school for you may be one you have never considered or heard of. Prepare to explore what matters most to you and work to go find it. NYU may sound like a great idea but if you dream of a campus in the woods, then it probably isn’t the place for you. Carnegie Mellon is an amazing school, but if math isn’t your thing, you probably won’t be happy there.
Every college on your list should be a good fit academically, socially, and financially. Choose colleges where you see yourself being happy both inside and outside of the classroom.
Research, research, and then do some more research.
The more you research, the more likely you are to find colleges that are the best fit for you. Start with a list of colleges that sound interesting and then read about them. Read their websites, look at their instagram accounts, or their school papers. As you learn about schools, you will begin to see what appeals to you and what you care about. As you research schools, you will likely rule some out, but in the process, you also may discover schools you had never considered. Research classes, professors, majors, minors, sports, arts, clubs, or anything else that is important to you. The additional benefit of research is that it is a way to demonstrate interest to a school by following them on social media. For instance, Yale has a great admissions Tumblr (https://yaleadmissions.tumblr.com) where prospective students can learn about the school and have their admissions questions answered. The more you know about a school and why it is a great fit for you, the better you will be able to articulate why you are the right fit for them when it comes time to apply.
When it comes to determining if a college is right for you, there is nothing that compares to spending time on campus. Attend an information session, take a tour, and explore the surrounding area. If possible, attend classes, have lunch with a student, or stay overnight in a freshman dorm. See how you feel. Are you most excited to be one of the 30,000 undergrads to head to “The Big House” at the University of Michigan to cheer on the football team? Or are you happiest as you imagine yourself sharing one of the traditional Gothic houses with as few as ten housemates at Smith? You may want to consider the economic and racial diversity when choosing a school or what health services are available. Your ideal college list will be based on figuring out your own priorities and values. A visit is the most effective way to get a sense of whether a particular school could feel like home.
Look at the numbers.
As most admissions representatives will tell you, college admissions is a “holistic process”. It is not just about the numbers. Selective colleges also consider factors like activities, accomplishments, and recommendations. Without a doubt, it is great to challenge yourself and aim high but the numbers still should guide your list. The very best essays and extracurricular activities, as compelling as they may be, will not be able to candy coat grades that are not in the range of a particular college. While doing your research, identify the data for each of the schools you are interested in. Look at admissions rates, GPA’s and test scores using college compare tools like “Naviance”.Your ideal list should have a balanced variety and equal proportion of “reach”, “target”, and “likely” schools:
“Likely” schools: Student’s academic profile is significantly stronger than the middle 50 percent of students who are typically admitted.
“Target” schools: Student’s academic profile is similar to the middle 50 percent
“Reach” schools: Student’s academic profile is not as strong as the middle 50 percent
If a school is a reach, that should not deter you from applying, especially if it is a great fit for you, but keep your expectations realistic and know that it may be a long shot. On the flip side, don’t include a likely that you are not really interested in just to have a back up. The important thing is that no school, whether it is a reach, target, or likely, should be on your list unless you will be excited to be there in the fall of your freshman year.
What are your wants and needs?
What is important to you and what will make you comfortable and happy?
What are your location priorities? Think about weather, distance from home, opportunities in the surrounding area. Are you happiest in an environment that is urban, suburban, or rural? Maybe you are determined to have a corporate internship and you are energized by the idea of a city or you are a writer and know you are most inspired when surrounded by natural beauty. Are you most comfortable close to home, near your family, or are you excited by the freedom and independence of being a plane ride away? Think about all of this but be ready to change your mind. You may know for sure that you need the bright lights of Manhattan until you step foot on a snow covered campus in New Hampshire.
Student Population Size
Do you want to go to a school where everyone knows your name or a school where you are destined to meet someone new every day? If you are looking for independence and anonymity, with many research opportunities and sporting events, then a big school may be for you. At Cornell, approximately 3,000 undergraduates, out of an undergraduate population of 15,000, earn credit for their research efforts each year. But if you are looking forward to connecting with and getting to know your professors well, then a small liberal arts college may be your place. At Vassar, with 2,400 undergraduate students, it is easy for students to cultivate relationships with faculty: Some faculty even live in the dorms and serve as mentors. Consider what matters most to you and think about how the size of the school will help you achieve it.
Majors and Academics
What are the classes that you can’t wait to take and what are the classes that you have to take? Are you most comfortable with the structure of distribution requirements or do you long for the freedom to take whatever classes you want? Columbia is famous for its “core” which ensures that every single student graduates having shared, to some degree, a similar academic experience. Conversely, at Brown, where there are no requirements, students enjoy the freedom, and the challenge, of charting their own course and taking any classes they want. Do you want the well rounded perspective of a liberal arts education or do you know exactly what you want to do and are ready to get on a pre-professional track right away? Many liberal arts schools won’t have a communications, graphic design, or a pre-law track, but the courses available will teach you marketable skills for those specific career paths. Wellesley is an excellent school but if you want engineering, it may not have the classes you need. What’s your intended major? If you know that you want to be an architect, it’s important to know whether the schools on your list offer an architecture major or at least classes in the area. Also, think about what you might want to do after college. Are you considering graduate school, or doing research, or headed straight to the business world? Research your schools and find out which schools are successful at helping their students gain admission to the programs that you may want. Make sure that the schools on your list offer the courses and programs that you need to prepare for your future.
Extracurricular Activities and Athletics
Are there specific extracurricular activities that are important to you? Are you seeking a particular religious organization on campus? Do you want to continue your work as an EMT or as a member of a band? Make sure that there is a way on campus or nearby for you to participate in your favorite activities. Are you an athlete? Do you want to compete for the school and if so, what division? Are you looking to play at a club or intramural level? Be sure that you can play your sport the way you want.
Talk about money.
College tuition is at an all time high and is a major expense on any budget. But cost alone should not rule out any particular school because there are need based and merit based scholarships available at many schools. Early in your process, discuss as a family how much you are able to pay and how much debt you are willing to incur. If you know this from the start, it gives you time to research and apply for different scholarships. Some students only apply to state schools because they believe they are less expensive. This is sometimes the case but private schools often have significant endowments and resources that enable them to offer generous financial aid. But if you learn that a school offers minimal financial aid or its location makes it cost prohibitive, it is important to determine this before your list is finalized to prevent wasted time and disappointment.
What are the values of a school?
Many schools are known not just for their academics or sports teams, but also for what they stand for and the type of students they seek and attract. Many colleges will put this on their website. For example, Bowdoin College explains that they were “founded and endowed for the common good”, and that their “commitment to the common good is not something they own. It is something they seek.” Northeastern University, who is known for their coop internship program, states that “Experience is at the heart of everything we do”. Read college websites and talk to as many current students and recent grads as you can to make sure that a school’s values align with your own.
Enjoy the ride and get excited as you build your college list. Have fun as you think about what will make you happy and comfortable. Your list is crucial as you kick off your college admissions process and there are so many great options of places where you will thrive. But in the end, there will be one school that welcomes you in the fall of freshman year. Ultimately, that’s the only one that matters.
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