How to Create a College List


Kate Sliunkova

AdmitYogi, Stanford MBA & MA in Education



8 min read

How to Create a College List


Crafting a well-curated college list is a crucial step in the college application process. As you navigate through the various components of your applications, including supplemental essays and recommendation letters, it's easy to procrastinate on the daunting task of narrowing down your long list of potential schools. To help you streamline this process and stay on top of your applications, here's some genuine advice on how to effectively refine your college list.

Determining the Number of Schools to Apply to:

While there isn't a magic number that suits all students, it's generally recommended to aim for a balanced list of 10-12 colleges. It's essential to avoid fixating solely on prestigious institutions, like Ivy League schools, and instead prioritize institutions that align closely with your individual needs and goals. Keep in mind that each college may require its own set of supplemental essays, and crafting personalized applications for 15 or more schools can quickly become overwhelming. By focusing on a smaller range of schools that truly excite you, you can better manage your time and ensure the submission of thoughtful applications that reflect your genuine interest.

Categorizing Your Schools:

It's crucial to approach your college list strategically by considering your applicant profile and admission probabilities. Understanding the concept of "reach," "target," and "likely" schools can assist you in making informed decisions:

1. "Likely" schools: These are institutions where your academic profile surpasses that of the middle 50 percent of admitted students. 2. "Target" schools: Your academic profile aligns closely with the middle 50 percent of admitted students at these institutions. 3. "Reach" schools: Your academic profile may not be as strong as the middle 50 percent of admitted students at these institutions.

To gauge where your academic profile stands, you can find information on median grades and test scores on university websites. By categorizing your schools into reaches, targets, and likelies, you can better evaluate your chances of admission and develop a well-rounded college list. Curious what your acceptance odds may look like at some of these schools? Check out our acceptance rate calculator!

Maximizing the Research Process:

Building a balanced college list is a critical phase in the application process. To make the most of your research, consider the following steps:

Weigh Your Options:

Rather than fixating on a narrow list of well-known institutions, expand your horizons and explore the vast array of over 3,000 four-year institutions in the United States. Consider factors that are important to you, such as campus environment, majors and specializations, class size, student-to-faculty ratio, research opportunities, and extracurricular activities. By focusing on these priorities instead of relying on brand recognition, you can discover hidden gems and make well-informed decisions when narrowing down your list.

Consider the Learning Environment:

Beyond academics, it's crucial to assess the learning environment offered by each college. Some students thrive in smaller, intimate class settings that encourage close interactions with professors and peers, while others prefer larger lecture-style classes that offer a diverse range of perspectives. Research the student-to-faculty ratio and class sizes at each institution to determine which setting aligns best with your preferred learning style. Additionally, explore the availability of academic support services, such as tutoring or writing centers, to ensure that you'll have the resources you need to succeed academically.

Evaluate Campus Resources and Facilities:

As you envision your college experience, consider the resources and facilities that will support your personal and academic growth. Look into libraries, research centers, laboratories, and other facilities relevant to your areas of interest. A well-equipped campus can provide opportunities for hands-on learning, collaborative projects, and further exploration within your field of study. Additionally, assess the availability of internships, co-op programs, and career services to determine if the college offers the support necessary to kickstart your professional journey.

Consider Alumni Networks and Career Opportunities:

While your time in college is focused on learning and personal development, it's essential to consider future career prospects as well. Research the alumni networks and career services offered by each college. Look into internship opportunities, job placement rates, and connections with industry professionals. A robust alumni network can provide invaluable mentorship and networking opportunities that may enhance your post-graduation prospects. Consider how well each institution aligns with your desired career path and the resources available to help you achieve your professional goals.

Remember, finding the right college is not just about selecting a name brand or prestigious institution. It's about finding the best fit for your academic, personal, and career aspirations. By carefully weighing your options and considering these factors, you can create a college list that aligns with your unique goals and sets you up for success in the years to come.

Crafting the "Why This College" Essay:

After conducting your research, begin outlining a "why this college" essay for each school that remains on your list. Many colleges and universities ask this question in their supplements, so it's a valuable exercise that allows you to delve into the details of each institution. If you find it challenging to articulate why a particular school resonates with you, it might be an indication that it's not the best fit. Take the time to consider your connection to each school and ensure that it aligns with your values and goals. Reading through examples of successful college essays may be especially helpful when writing "Why This College" essays. We recommend checking out this database of thousands of successful college essays to start.

Utilizing Virtual Visits:

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges have introduced virtual tours, providing an opportunity to experience campuses remotely. Virtual college tours, combined with virtual information sessions, allow you to demonstrate your interest in specific schools. These information sessions, often led by admissions officers or deans, cover essential topics like essay writing, the admissions process, and financial aid. They may also offer opportunities for questions or provide contact information for further inquiries.

Considering In-Person Tours:

While virtual visits are a valuable starting point, if you desire a deeper understanding of a college on your best-fit list, consider in-person tours. Most campuses have resumed offering in-person visits, but it's crucial to check each school's website for campus-specific protocols and tour registration information. In-person tours can enhance your understanding of the campus environment and demonstrate your genuine interest in the institution.

Key Questions for Finalizing Your College List:

To feel confident in your college selections, it's important to have answers to several key questions for each school on your list:

1. Where do I stand compared to other applicants? Gain a realistic understanding of your admissions odds by comparing your grades and test scores with statistics provided by colleges regarding their incoming class. 2. What courses and majors am I interested in pursuing? Explore the programs and majors offered by each prospective college to ensure they align with your academic interests and goals. 3. What kind of campus environment am I seeking? Reflect on your preferences regarding campus size, setting, and atmosphere. Consider taking both virtual and in-person tours to experience different types of campuses and determine your preferences. 4. What types of extracurricular activities are important to me? Research the clubs, sports teams, and other extracurricular opportunities offered by each college to ensure they align with your interests and provide avenues for personal growth outside the classroom. 5. Is this school a good financial fit? Take financial aid into account when making your decisions. Explore the financial aid offerings of each school and utilize net price calculators available on college websites to estimate your family's expected contribution. If you have specific questions, reach out to the college's financial aid office for personalized assistance.

Seek Personalized Guidance:

After finalizing your college list, the next important step is to brainstorm and craft compelling essays that showcase your unique qualities and experiences. A powerful essay can make a significant difference in the admissions process. To get started, it's beneficial to read examples of successful college essays that have resonated with admissions officers in the past. By analyzing these essays, you can gain insight into effective storytelling, structure, and conveying personal growth. To assist you in this process, our database offers thousands of successful college essays that have helped students gain admission to elite schools. Accessing this valuable resource can inspire and guide you as you develop your own impactful essays. Remember, your essay is an opportunity to share your authentic voice and leave a lasting impression on the admissions committee.

Ultimately, while creating a balanced college list may seem overwhelming initially, starting your research early and allowing ample time to weigh your options can make the process more manageable.

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