How To Build a Balanced College List

Building a balanced list is about research and knowing what you want. The first component has to do with identifying the school’s numerical range that you’re interested in--the average SAT/ACT scores are available on the schools’ websites, and from there you compare your own score. If your scores are above, it’s a safety, if they’re around the same, a target, and if you fall below numerically, then the school is a reach. Before we delve into building your list, make sure that you read up on the difference between reaches, targets, and safety schools in our blog post on the topic. This post builds on that knowledge.

Once you understand the difference between those three labels, you can start filling your list in. Begin with what you know in terms of the following categories: location, size, culture, and academics (both your potential major and classes). These are the most important components to pay attention to. They will also help you avoid applying to reach schools that you want to apply to because of their name but wouldn’t be a good fit, or safety schools that you actually wouldn’t be happy attending.

We typically advise that students start with a broad list of about 20 schools and then filter schools out based on research and visits. We can help you create that list, if you’d like. Let’s look at, for example, Alison. Alison is a strong test-taker, with a 35 on her ACT, has a 3.8 GPA, is interested in attending a medium sized school near a dynamic city that isn’t New York, and is undecided on her major but knows she loves film. She wants a school with a lot of school spirit, a liberal arts focus, and a notable culture. Based on those parameters, we’ve put together a preliminary list for her to begin researching:

University of Michigan
University of Southern California
University of California, Los Angeles
University of Texas at Austin
Boston University
Emory University
Johns Hopkins University

University of California, Irvine
University of California, San Diego
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
American University

University of Miami
University of Washington
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
University of Colorado, Denver

From there, you research and visit, and research and visit again. There’s no right choice, and you could come across some other schools along the way that pique your interest. You might even choose to add a school to your list that is smaller than you had previously considered, or larger, but that sounds like it could be a great fit culturally and academically (Emerson College could be a great target for Alison!).

Ultimately, you want to end up with about 8-10 schools: 3-4 reaches, 3-4 targets, and 2-3 safety schools. You need to make sure that you’re excited about and would actually happily attend each and every school on your list. The most important things are research and knowing what you want. From there, you can always expand your considerations and compromise. We find that it’s better to start with more constraints and build a list based on that. If you need any help at all, let us know.