How to Build a College List for Guaranteed Admission Success

Building a college list is one of the most challenging things that you’ll do during the college process. The good news is that it can also be quite fun. There are thousands of colleges in the U.S., so it can feel intimidating. We’ll break it down into 8 easy steps to help you start your journey. There are a few key questions that are necessary to ask yourself as you put together your list of colleges that you plan to apply to.

That said, this step-by-step guide is for you if you’re a typical student who isn’t quite sure what exactly they want to major in. That’s most of you, but there are some of you who know exactly what you want to study, for example, if you want to study electrical engineering and also film, there are only a few schools that will be able to offer that. You should consider that outright, and in that case, you’re going to essentially source and narrow by programs. If you need help with that, let us know. If you’re not totally sure what you want to major in, keep reading.

Take your SAT/ACT so you know your range

Once you know your range it’ll help you narrow your list. You really shouldn’t have any schools on your list in which the average standardized testing scores are well above yours. Your reaches should still be within range because we’re not masochists and what’s the fun in applying somewhere you know you won’t get in.

Case study: Jordan got a 31 on his ACT. This is great. It eliminates certain schools, like MIT and Stanford, but he still has a ton of schools to choose from.

Visit at least 3 colleges

Before you categorize a school as yay or nay in your mind, make sure that you visit a few. This is important to the process because you get an idea of what some of your preferences are and what you like, what you hate, what you are surprisingly intrigued by, and so on.

Case study: Let’s say Jordan visits Vassar, Columbia, and USC. He liked the environment of Vassar but felt that it was just too small at the end of the day. Columbia had way too many core academic requirements—he’d prefer room to explore between departments. And USC was wonderful, but ultimately he doesn’t want to be on a different time-zone from his family. This is great, because it eliminates an entire coast, puts the emphasis on more open curriculums, and eliminates small schools. So we’re looking for a medium-large East Coast, Midwest, or Southern School with a relatively open curriculum for Jordan. This is a great place to start.

Decide how close or far you want to be from home. AKA: how much do you like your mom?

We know you love your mom. She’s the best. But seriously, do you want to be a plane ride or a cheeky drive away? Do you want to be able to get home in 2 hours or is it OK if it takes half a day? Location is important for many reasons, and relation to your family is certainly one of them. We know, this is your time to be independent and fly, but your family is your family. Think about it for a few seconds before deciding that you want to be as far away as possible.

Case study: Jordan loves his mom, and as he decided he doesn’t want to be more than 1-time zone away but he would admittedly like to be a considerable drive or short flight away. Let’s say he needs to be home (door-to-door) in 6 hours or less.

How big of a campus do you really want?

Think about it: do you want to know basically everyone you run into while walking across campus and feel like you own the place or do you want to constantly meet new people in every single class that you take? Or something in between? Maybe a small department vibe within your Government classes but you’re meeting new people every time you go out to a party? Size is a big part of your college experience so it’s worth a think. In general, we think of size as the following:

  • Small (0-5000): This means you know everyone and you can get from one end to campus to the other in likely less than 15 minutes (examples: Amherst, Williams, Pomona).
  • Medium (5-15,000): You get to know a lot of people quickly but at the start of every school year it feels like a totally new campus for a couple of months (examples: Tufts, WashU, UPenn).
  • Large (15,000+): You are constantly meeting new people, seeing new clubs pop up, taking classes with a room full of new minds, and there’s a ton to explore. Campus is big, perhaps all around a city or town (examples: University of Michigan, basically all state schools, Cornell)

Case study: As stated above, Jordan wants a medium or large school in the Northeast, South, or Midwest. Great. Onto the next.

Do you care about Greek life?

This is definitely important to consider because it affects the social aspect of a college. Caring about Greek life is not good or bad, so let’s just start there. It is purely a matter of preference. It’s even possible to want a school with Greek life but not even want to be involved with it directly. Consider if you want to attend a school where a majority of the parties and interactions are based around fraternities and sororities, and investigate how large of a percentage of a school’s students are involved. Ask questions. Talk to current students, if possible. More information is better when it comes to this particular issue.

Case study: Jordan does indeed want to attend a school that has Greek life and wants to join a fraternity.

Nature or city?

Where exactly do you want campus to be? In a city, near a city, or far away from a city in no man’s land? This is about environment. Do you want to be able to hike on a Saturday morning or do you want to be able to pop over to a museum with a significant collection of art? Do you want both, in which case, either the hike or the museum might be about an hour drive away? It will benefit you to do some research on the area and understand what any college town has to offer. Skidmore, for example, is in Saratoga Springs, which, while in the middle of upstate New York is an incredibly culturally-rich little area that has tons to offer. Dartmouth is in Hanover, New Hampshire and is what we’d consider to be in the middle of nowhere, but is 2 hours from Boston. These are all things to think about when you visualize your free time. There’s nothing worse than getting to a school and being totally thrown off.

Case study: Jordan is relatively ambivalent but would prefer to have easier access to hiking and be no more than 2 hours away from a bustling city.

Make a list

And make it long, like 20-30 schools. Make sure that it’s varied and has a number of reaches, targets, and safeties on it. It should be longer than you’re comfortable with, and remember that you’re going to be eliminating a number of them so don’t get too attached.

Case study:

  • Reach: University of Michigan, Washington University at St. Louis, Duke University, Tufts University, Northwestern University, UNC Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt University, Johns Hopkins University
  • Target: Tulane University, Wake Forest University, Emory University, University of Virginia, Boston University
  • Safety: Syracuse University, Elon University, Penn State, George Washington University, American University, Temple University

Narrow it down

This is the fun and challenging part. Visit as many colleges as you possibly can on your list and figure out what you like and what you don’t like. Narrow your list down and make sure that you keep some safeties on there that you’re excited about. Above all, ask questions.

There you go. 8 easy steps to building a college list. We know it can seem like a lot, but if you take it step by step and are thoughtful along the way, you’ll come up with a balanced and exciting list.

If you need any help with any step above, let us know. We help all of our students create a list of schools that they are not only excited about, but that they get accepted into. We’re here to help you get in, so feel free to reach out.