Tip of the Month: Constructing Your College List

July 3, 2014, by Jason

With so many choices…over 4,000 if you’re counting…coming up with a list of colleges to apply to can be overwhelming. The onslaught of information and advice you’ve been flooded with has probably further complicated matters. Where do you begin? How many schools should you apply to? What criteria should prompt you to add to or subtract from your list? Below are some things to consider as you attempt to develop a manageable list.

  • Getting started: Guide books and search engines are good places to start. I also like the sites that provide a recommended list of schools based on a profile you complete. You should also solicit recommendations from people who know you well , a guidance counselor, your favorite teacher, relatives, close friends. The most important thing to do in the beginning is to keep an open mind, do not limit your search to name brands or “top ranked” schools. If someone recommends a name you’re not familiar with look into it anyway, find out why the school was recommended for you. Don’t short change your college search by limiting it just to schools that you’ve previously heard of.
  • Self impose a deadline: At a certain point your college search process needs to end, and your college application process needs to begin. Completing college applications is almost like taking an extra class, especially if you wait until the last minute (SPOILER ALERT: the August Tip of the Month will be about getting an early start on your college application). I think the middle of October is a good time to cut off your college search. If you have been on top of things you’ll probably be comfortable with your list before then, but keep in mind that many college rep visits and college fairs happen in September and October, giving you the opportunity to get first hand knowledge on any of the schools that are on the bubble for you. I also find that students are more sure of what they want the further they get into their senior year, so I definitely wouldn’t cut off your search before the end of the summer prior to your senior year.
  • 8 is enough: I understand the anxiety that comes with the competitiveness of college admission, but in reality your chances do not improve by increasing your number applications. An argument could be made that applying to a large number of schools could weaken your chances. We often advise students to find their “fit”…well colleges also look for “fit” as they evaluate applicants. If your application doesn’t communicate why you are a good fit your chance of admission will decrease at a lot of places. How many places are really ideal fits for you? Making a case for fit at each of the schools you apply to is a must, and adding to your list will detract you from giving quality attention to the applications for the schools that fit you best. Something else to think about here; lets say the best case scenario happens and you are admitted to most of, or all of, the schools you apply to. If you thought narrowing your college list was stressful imagine having to pick ONE school out of the 8, 9 or 10 that have granted you admission with only one month to choose! I wouldn’t apply to more than 8 schools, and considering the cost of application fees and sending test scores I don’t get why anyone would want to do more.
  • Study the profile: We try to stay away from phrases like “reach” and “safety,” but your list should have schools that fall in each of these categories. How does your academic record compare with the academic profile of an institution’s incoming class? Some high schools keep statistics on acceptance history for various institutions, which you can also factor into your reach/safety equation. To play it safe I would add any highly selective school (admit rate of 30% or less) to the reach category regardless of how you compare with the profile. It seems like the most coveted schools belong to the reach category, but building a list with just reach schools is unwise. No matter what anyone tells you college admission is NOT predictable, especially at highly selective schools, so the schools on your list should have a little variety with their academic profiles. And any “safety” schools added to your list should be institutions that you actually want to attend. The other thing about the profile is that it gives you insight into the types of students who attend that institution. Most profiles will include information like where the students come from, gender and race/ethnicity breakdowns, and distribution of intended majors.
  • Actual Cost: I don’t think cost should be a dominating factor at the college search phase, but you obviously need to be aware and your list should include a couple of schools that you are confident will be affordable for you and your family if you are admitted. Be sure to look beyond sticker price when trying to predict cost. For each institution look into the availability of scholarships and grants, and the percent of students receiving financial aid (including how much and what types of aid received).
  • Pay us a visit: I have had students tell me that they are putting off college visits until after admission decisions have been rendered. This type of thinking is backward because being on campus is the best way to determine if a school is right for you, there is only so much you can learn from websites and publications. It may not be feasible to visit every school on your list, especially if you are looking at schools far from home, but visiting schools that are comparable to those on your list can help. While each campus has their unique personality, you can at least get a feel for the type of atmosphere that fits you best. Visiting a small college, for example, will help you determine if that type of environment suits you better than that of a large institution. Keep in mind that the second half of your senior year is a busy time, so you may not have as much time as you anticipate to do college visits at that time. Also, say you were admitted to 3 of the schools you applied to, visited them, and didn’t feel a connection with any of them…what do you do then? Having a personal experience on campus will also help you articulate your fit in your application, so campus visits help with both the search and application phases.
  • Draw on peer experience: Keep in touch with your former classmates that have gone off to college. Even if you don’t know anyone attending any of the schools you’re considering you can still gain insights from their college experience. What’s it like going to a college that is smaller than our high school? What’s it like taking a class with 300 people? How is it living in a different city? And if you happen to know someone attending one of the schools that you’re looking at make sure to press them for information that you haven’t found in your own research. College students are typically very honest about their experience, and getting this info from someone that has come from the same environment as you will be useful in this process.
  • The Obvious: Criteria such as size, location, quality of academic programs and majors, and availability of extracurricular activities are all things I assume you already knew to consider. The one item listed here that is sometimes neglected is size. A lot of students don’t think size matters but it will have a significant impact on your college experience both inside and outside the classroom. Make sure to visit a mix of large, medium, and small campuses before determining whether or not size is important.

Hopefully this will help get you organized. Make sure to keep an open mind during this process and don’t stress over finding your dream school. When it’s all said and done you will end up at the perfect college for you.

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