There are 4,000 colleges in the U.S., and the median number of schools students apply to is four, according to Niche.
You might be wondering how you’ll go from so many options to so few. Enter the college list.
Personalizing your list of colleges — and backing it up with research — will help you make the jump. It’ll also help you choose the right school.
5 steps to building 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. Whether the list is capable of helping you navigate the college application process is another story.
These five steps can help you build or improve a list of colleges that will also serve as a roadmap.
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 of focusing on the schools, it’s wise to shift the spotlight to yourself. Knowing what you want in a school will make it easier to find one that fits.
Ask yourself what you desire from your college experience. If you’re not sure what questions to ask, think in the context of these five categories:
- Academics: What are your preferred majors?
- 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. If you’re successful, you’ll be able to turn them into data points during the research process.
For example, knowing that you prefer an urban campus to a rural setting might help you eliminate schools. But if you can pinpoint a number of miles you’d like to be from home, you can save yourself a lot of research later.
2. Get organized
Knowing your priorities is important, but creating a system will help you rank and compare them by school. The college list itself doesn’t have to be on paper or online. But it does have to be a living, breathing document that can be edited at any moment to suit your latest preferences.
My high school mentee and I built a college list using a spreadsheet provided by iMentor. Having a digital version of the document allowed us to add comments to each other’s research. We also knew we could print it out to bring on college visits.
Focus on creating a template list of colleges that works for you. You could:
- Create one on your own.
- Download a premade version, like this one from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
- Use The College Board tools to track your list.
This might sound like a simple step, but being organized will make your life easier the longer your college list becomes.
3. Learn how to categorize schools
Schools will be judging you based on test scores and GPA, among other factors. Take time to research how your statistics compare to the average profile of their admitted students.
Depending on your scores, you’ll label each of your choice schools as a safety, target, or reach:
- Safety: Your scores are above average.
- Target: Your scores are within range.
- Reach: Your scores are below average.
The 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.
But 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 percent 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 you know what you want in a school and how you’re going to organize your research, it’s time to put in the work. By this point, you might have more specific questions that need answers, like:
- Academics: Does the school have top-tier business and journalism programs?
- 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?
If you know what you care about, but you’re still not sure which questions to ask, rely on the best college search engines to come up with queries. Here are three worth highlighting:
- The Department of Education’s College Scorecard
- National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator
- The College Board’s Big Future
On any of these 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.
5. Narrow your results
Focus on the priorities that are the most exclusive. If you know you want to attend school in a specific state to score the lower in-state tuition rate, you could drop 49 other states’ worth of schools.
From there, keep an open mind to discover schools that check every box on your list. A school that you’ve never heard of might ace them all.
Keeping this mindset, include at least a pair of 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.
As you dive deeper into each school that passes the initial cut on your college list, find other resources for your research. If you’re not sure about your out-of-pocket costs, for example, use The College Board’s Net Price Calculator to find more specific pricing from the schools themselves.
Hopefully, your academic target schools are financial safety schools, too.
Put your list of colleges to the test
No matter your starting point, your college list won’t be complete until you’ve hit send on your last college application. Use whatever time you have to massage the list. Leave open the possibility of adding new schools or diving deeper into older ones.
You know what you want in a school, and you know what schools need to show to make your list. But before you start worrying about how many safety, target, and reach schools to apply to, there’s one more step: visiting them.
After all, making campus visits is one of the key steps to choosing a college. Just remember to bring your list.
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