How to Create a College List to Help You Find Your Perfect School

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Thinking about potential colleges to attend can be exciting and overwhelming given the number of schools (over 4,000) in the U.S. alone. How do you decide where to apply when there are so many options?

Enter the college list. It’s a time-honored tool to help you create a personalized list of well-researched schools. Learning how to make a college list that is useful and informative can help you choose the perfect school for you.

6 steps on how to make a college list

If you’re a high school junior or senior, the parent of one, or a working adult returning to school, you might already have a college list of some kind, at least in your mind. Or maybe you don’t know where to begin your college search.

No matter how prepared (a lot or a little) you are, these six steps can help you build or improve your list of colleges that serve as a roadmap to where you want to apply to school.

1. Figure out your priorities
2. Get organized
3. Learn how to categorize schools
4. Use the right tools
5. Keep an open mind
6. Add in some 2-year schools
Plus: Put your list of colleges to the test

1. Figure out your priorities

When starting the search for the right college, you might be tempted to review the admissions standards of prestigious schools. Instead, shift the spotlight to yourself. In fact, think of your college list as a crash course in getting to know you and what you want out of college.

Knowing what you want in a school will make it easier to find one that fits. The list should reflect your dreams, aspirations, personality and strengths.

Ask yourself, “What do you desire from your college experience?” And if you’re not sure what questions to ask, try thinking in the context of these five categories:

  • Academics: What are your preferred majors or areas of study?
  • Affordability: What’s your expected family contribution?
  • Location: How far from home are you willing to go?
  • Support: What will you need to succeed in college?
  • Culture: What do you want out of a campus beyond the classroom?

Try to make your questions as specific as possible to help turn the answers into data points during your research process.

For example, knowing that you prefer an urban campus to a rural setting might help you eliminate some schools. Or ask yourself how comfortable you would be traveling far from home. If you love playing team sports, find out what is available at your school; ditto for the arts.

By combing through your answers to the above questions, you can save yourself time from researching schools that don’t fit the criteria you have outlined.

2. Get organized

Knowing your priorities is important, but creating an actual system should help you rank and compare them by school.

The college list itself can be written down on paper or kept online. Either way, it should be a document that can be edited to suit your preferences as you add and subtract schools from your list.

Focus on creating a template to list colleges but make sure it is easy for you to use. Some suggestions on how to make a college list on your own or by using online tools:

  • Create a list in a Word document.
  • Use College Board tools to track your list.
  • A Google or an Excel spreadsheet could also work.

This might seem simple initially, but being organized will make your life easier if your list grows. It is also a well-known fact that organization and list-making may reduce stress. Plus, a printable list is handy to use during college visits.

3. Learn how to categorize schools

Schools will be judging you based on test scores and GPA, among other factors. Take the time to research how your own statistics compare to the average profile of their admitted students.

Depending on your scores and GPA, you can label each of your choices as a safety, target or reach school:

  • Safety: Your academic credentials are above average.
  • Target: Your academic credentials are within range.
  • Reach: Your academic credentials are below average.

The above terms — safety, reach and target — are almost always used to describe your academic chances of admission.

When reviewing colleges, you might see percentage-based guidelines. How your SAT and ACT scores measure up to a school’s typically admitted students, for example, could tell you whether you’re reaching or not.

Affordability may play a role

You should also think about these categories in terms of college affordability. A school that doesn’t have a high percentage of Pell Grant recipients, for example, might be a reach for you if you need a lot of financial aid to afford the cost of attendance.

On the other hand, schools that meet 100% of financial need become safeties, at least financially.

Researching both academic and financial factors (plus others) is better than simply asking whether you can gain admission to a good school.

4. Use the right tools

Now that (hopefully) you know what you want in a school and how you’re going to organize your list, it’s time to research the colleges that interest you. By this point, you should have more specific questions that need answers. Breaking the questions down into specifics is helpful. For example:

  • Academics: Does the school have top-tier business and journalism programs? (Or whatever it is you think you would like to study.)
  • Affordability: Are there federal work-study programs available?
  • Location: Does the city have adequate public transportation options?
  • Support: Is there on-campus staff that caters to learners with my needs?
  • Culture: What is the racial diversity of the campus? What is the male-to-female ratio? Are classes large or small?

If you know what you care about, but you’re still not sure which questions to ask, try out some of these college search engines to come up with queries. Here are three tools worth highlighting:

By using any of the above sites, you can discover filters that match your priorities. If you’re concerned about affordability, for example, the College Scorecard might lead you to ask about a school’s average annual cost.

If you’re not sure about your out-of-pocket costs, for example, try using the College Board’s Net Price Calculator to find more specific pricing from the schools themselves. And, with luck, your academic target schools are financial safety schools, too.

5. Keep an open mind

Focus on the priorities that are the most exclusive. For example, if you are positive you want to attend school in a few specific states to snag the lower in-state tuition rate, you could drop the other states where it’s harder to establish residency.

From there, keep an open mind to finding schools that check as many boxes as possible on your list. And don’t rule out a school just because you don’t know anyone from there or if you’ve never heard of it. It is possible that a new school could meet nearly every requirement on your list.

6. Add in some 2-year schools

Include at least a fw two-year schools on your college list even if you have your heart set on attending a four-year school. You can cross them off later, but including them at the outset increases your options. Even as you narrow your list, don’t make it too short at this point. Thinking outside the box could lead you to unexpected and welcome surprises.

As you dive deeper into each school that passes the initial cut on your college list, find other resources for your research.

Put your list of colleges to the test

No matter your starting point, your college list won’t be complete until you’ve hit the send button on your last college application. But before you start worrying about how many safety, target and reach schools to apply to, there’s one more step: visiting them either online or in person.

After all, making campus visits is one of the key steps to choosing a college. Just remember to bring your list. And remember, whether the list is capable of helping you navigate the college application process is another story.

Maya Dollarhide contributed to this article.

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Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

Advertiser Disclosure

Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

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