Building a college list can be daunting – and oftentimes the most intimidating part is just figuring out where to start.
In this blog, we want to share how to create a college list in an accessible, comfortable, and effective way.
When should we start thinking about my college list?
From the PSAT to selecting junior year courses to starting to take diagnostics for the SAT and ACT, sophomore year is an ideal time to introduce the topic of college in low-pressure ways that ease a student (and family) into the college preparation mindset. (If college is indeed the right next step after high school.)
Assuming college is the plan, beginning to consider school options in the spring and summer of sophomore year gives plenty of time to explore, research, and visit without the pressure of an upcoming application deadline.
Keep your eyes open for any casual opportunities to visit colleges. If a student has older siblings, they should tag along on their college visits! If a student participates in summer programs or activity conferences that are held on college campuses, they should carve out some time to explore the schools.
Students and families do not need to take a full tour or attend info sessions in these initial stages. Exploration on your own can be just as valuable for laying the foundation for a college list.
How do we start a college list?
This advice is going to sound simple – and that’s because it is simple: students should start with superficial details of what they want – or what they think they don’t want!
Remember: picking a college is not just about picking a school – it is about picking a home.
There are thousands and thousands of colleges across the United States. Using big, objective factors to winnow down the possibilities will make the college search so much more manageable and less intimidating.
Here are some factors to consider:
- Environment: Urban or suburban or rural?
- Campus type: Concentrated or spread out?
- Size: Small, medium, or large?
- Distance from home: Is an airplane ride acceptable to the student? (Or parents?)
- Religion and culture: Are particular affiliations, values, population sizes, and resources important?
- Community engagement: Is there Greek life? Access to nature? Division 1 sports teams?
- Weather: Warm, cold, or doesn’t matter?
- Majors/Minors: If a student knows what they want to study, does the college have the programs and resources to match? (If a student is undecided, does a school have the academic flexibility and support systems to let them explore options and majors?)
- Finances: Is the college with your family’s budget and how much merit scholarship money/financial aid would be needed?
It’s totally okay for a student to think they want to join the throng of screaming Wolverines at The Big House only to visit and find the campus too large and overwhelming. It’s okay to fantasize about going to college in a big city only to realize that having a green campus with open space is important.
A student’s college list should reflect their individuality, their values, and the diversity of their interests.
Should we visit colleges?
The short answer is YES – when it makes sense and is feasible for you. Click here to read our comprehensive guide to college visits. [LINK].
But before you plan on spending time and money to travel to visit colleges, we HIGHLY recommend visiting whatever schools are local to you first – even if they are not schools where your student will ultimately apply. Touring nearby colleges is a more convenient and affordable way to get comfortable with the college visit process and to have your student start forming opinions about what they do or don’t want in a school. To get the most out of this process, seek out as diverse a selection of local schools as possible.
How many colleges should be on a list?
This question is going to be different for each student, but on average, families who work with us tend to apply to around 8-12 schools.
There are many factors to consider when landing on a number – from the price of submitting an application to the number of supplemental essays the colleges require – but there is no “right” number of schools to apply to.
College lists are generally made up of three categories based on the likelihood of your admission: safeties, targets, and reaches.
While there are many who advocate for a college list that evenly balances these three categories, we advise that what is most important is that a student has at least three schools that are safeties.
Even if they are applying to only reach schools otherwise, as long as they have three safeties where they expect they would thrive and be truly happy, then that is a successful college list in our opinion.
What makes a school a safety school?
Click here to read an in-depth post about the nuances of choosing safety schools here [LINK].
In general, a safety school is someplace a student should be VERY confident they will get into. Confident means that your student’s GPA and standardized test scores are above the 75th percentile for that college. Simply put, safety schools are true insurance policies, where everyone in the family can rest their head on a pillow at the end of the day and not worry about whether or not an acceptance letter is coming.
While students and parents most often focus their college list building on target and reaches, having thoughtful and thorough conversations about safety schools is perhaps the most important part of building a college list. Knowing that your student will have options that they love no matter how anything else shakes out will go a long way toward easing any anxiety around the college application process.
What are “target” and “reach” schools?
Target schools are schools that MATCH your student’s current academic standing.
Reach schools are where your student’s grades, test scores, and achievements are statistically below those of the college’s 50th percentile – or schools where the acceptance rate is less than 10%.
For a more detailed analysis of reach schools, check out this blog post. [LINK]
When making a college list, take advantage of Naviance (assuming it is offered through your student’s high school). There is a tool on Naviance that allows students to compare themselves to past students from their high school who also applied to the same colleges, seeing if students with comparable grades and test scores were ultimately accepted or rejected. There is no better predictor of how likely it is that your student will be admitted to a particular college than this data through Naviance.
Not all reaches are created equal.
We know, we know: often the prestige and resources associated with reach schools can be tempting – especially when it comes to ambitious reach schools like Ivy League institutions.
When thinking about reach schools, it is important to realize that all the other factors that go into selecting a target school – like academic opportunities, location, school culture, etc. – are STILL equally important.
A name brand does not guarantee that the school is the right (or even good fit) for your student and their particular needs. Just because one student has their heart set on Penn does not mean that same student would be happy at Dartmouth. They are both in the Ivy League, but wildly different schools in so many ways.
Furthermore, certain universities can become reaches if they have colleges within them that are difficult to get into. An undecided student with great grades may reasonably view Indiana University as a target or safety, but if that same student wants to apply to Indiana’s competitive Kelley School of Business, then Indiana may become a reach school.
Make sure your student focuses on the substance of their reaches and that their reach schools truly reflect their individual needs, interests, and goals.
What should I prioritize when creating my college list?
We will say it again: At the end of the day, students are not just choosing a school – they are choosing a home.
While academic rigor, the freedom to explore opportunities, and a school culture you’re excited about are all great reasons to apply to a college, prioritize your potential for holistic happiness at a school over everything else.