The Basics of Building Your College List
“How many schools should I apply to?”
“What if I don’t get in anywhere?”
“Do I need more likely/safety schools?”
As a college counselor, these are some of the common questions I get from students and parents about crafting a college list.
At the start of the college search, the list seems impossible to build because there are SO many colleges. No need to stress: the process of building a college list can actually be quite manageable. Below is a “College List Building 101 Guide” of sorts. This is based on extensive work experience counseling individual students and families, as well as my time spent working as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at a selective college.
College counselors talk about the idea of “balance” a lot when thinking about the college list. This means that you should have schools on your list that fit into the “reach,” “target,” and “likely” category so you are spreading out risk. What exactly constitutes a reach, target, or likely?
Reaches: These are schools where your grades and test scores are below the average at those scores for admitted students. Note that some schools are reach schools for everyone (such as Harvard, Yale, Prince- ton, Stanford, MIT, and other super selective schools). For example, no matter who you are, a college list of just Cornell, Brown, Harvard, and Stanford would not be an appropriate list (even if you are the class valedictorian and have a perfect ACT).
Targets: Schools where you fit squarely into the “average” of grades and test scores for an admitted student.
Likelies: “Likely” schools are those that you have a pretty darn good chance of being admitted. While these schools may not be your absolute first choice, it is necessary to apply to a few. I am a big fan of applying to a likely school or two Early Action (which is not binding), so you can go into your December school break with an acceptance or two in hand.
Scattergrams from Naviance or Cappex can be helpful as you begin to assess whether a school is a reach, target, or likely for you.
Apply to schools that you can actually see yourself at
This is an important thing to keep in mind. There are so many students who apply to schools that they have no intention of attending. Unfortunately, I have too many conversations like this:
Me: “Why do you want to apply to Stanford/UCLA/USC/etc.? Didn’t you say you wanted to stay on the East Coast?”
Student: “Well, I do, but Stanford/UCLA/USC/etc. sounds cool, and I want to see if I can get in” Me: “But you have no intention of ever going?”
[I proceed to pull my hair out at this point]
Before you start an application, ask yourself: “could I ever see myself attending this place?” If the answer is “no,” or if you are applying just to see if you can get in, then you should NOT apply to that school.
College affordability is something on the minds of so many students and families nowadays. Affordability is absolutely something to keep in mind when building your list- what good is a college acceptance if you can’t afford it? This is why it is important for families to have an open conversation about financial expectations for college. The Net Price Calculator is a great tool (that is on the financial website of every college) that will give you an estimate of what a need-based financial aid package will look like for your family at a particular college.
If you know that you will need significant need-based financial aid, it is a good move to focus on schools that meet 100% of demonstrated need.
If you will need financial aid (but may not qualify for need-based financial aid), it will be critical to focus on schools that offer merit scholarships. Your in-state public school is another great option if you are in this situation.
So, how many schools should I apply to?
There is no magic number of schools to apply to. I have worked with students who have applied to one school Early Decision and were accepted and done with the admissions process. This is what I did when I was applying to college and it is certainly a viable strategy. However, if you will 100% be submitting Regular Decision applications, I think that 6-12 can be a pretty good range.
However, this number is going to be different for everyone. If you feel like you are going applying to too many schools, you should talk as yourself the question “would I actually want to attend this school?”.
- Put together a list of 6-12 schools that include targets, reaches, and likelies
- Strongly consider applying to a likely school or two Early Action (so you can have an acceptance in hand in December)
- Make sure that every school on your list is a place that you would actually consider attending
- Don’t forget about finances and affordability–getting in to a college is great, but it doesn’t help if it isn’t a good financial fit