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A Step-By-Step Guide to Building Your College List

By Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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Reviewed by Bill Jack

Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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Updated: July 12th, 2022
A Step-By-Step Guide to Building Your College List

With so many colleges out there, beginning to build your college list can seem an intimidating task. You may be wondering how many schools to apply to, what types of schools to include, and even be unsure of a good way to find schools you may be interested in. In this article, we’ll walk you through all of these first steps to gathering a list of suitable candidates.

The best way to go about your college search is to cast a wide net and then narrow down your options from there. We’ll show you how to gather a large coalition of colleges that interest you and ensure that you pick a diverse set of schools so that you have options down the line. Let’s get into it!

Related: How to choose a college

1. Take stock of your interests and what you want out of college

Before you even begin to look at colleges, it’s a good idea to frame your search by getting some idea of what you are looking for. You can ask yourself the following questions to get a general idea of what type of school you are looking for. 

  1. Do I want to attend school in an urban, suburban, or rural area?
  2. Do I want to attend a smaller school or a larger one?
  3. Are college sports a big priority for me?
  4. Do I plan on joining Greek life in college?
  5. Do I have any idea on what I’d like to major in? Should my school have a strong liberal arts program to help me decide, or do I want to go somewhere with a strong department for students who already know their field of study?
  6. Do I want to attend a school with graduate students or a strictly undergraduate program?
  7. Is there a certain region in which I’d like to study?
  8. Do I want to have easy access to outdoor activities during college?

Remember, you may not have a firm answer to any of these questions yet, but it’s good to get an idea of what your gut intuition is telling you! If you find that some of the questions garner a strong response, you can use that decision to help guide what schools you consider.

2. Read up on the schools you already know about

Many students go into the college search with a few colleges already in the back of their mind. Whether you read about the college in a book, your cousin went there, or a friend in the grade above you goes there now, you probably have some preconceived notion about at least a few different schools.

This is a great jumping-off point for building your college list! Ask people who have attended these schools about their experience, visit their websites and watch virtual college tours. You can also find basic information about the demographics of the schools, the price, and the salaries of graduates using the College Scorecard.

3. Visit local schools of varying sizes and focuses

Although you can sit around and speculate all day about what type of school you’d like to attend, there’s no substitute for actually showing up to a campus and seeing whether you feel at home there. Visiting all your prospective colleges is a daunting prospect, however, since you may be considering a wide range of colleges all around the country.

As a substitute for going to the campuses that you are most interested in, you can always hone your search by visiting some local campuses that are representative of the types of schools you’re considering. Try visiting a state school in your area, a liberal arts college, an urban campus, and a rural one. Although these may not be perfect substitutes for the colleges you’re considering, they can help give you an idea of what type of setting makes you feel most at home.

Also see: How to plan a college tour

4. Schedule an appointment with your high school counselor

High school counselors are often hard to get a hold of, as they are typically responsible for counseling a large number of students. However, if you make an appointment with them, they can prove invaluable resources. High school counselors have been trained in helping students decide what they want out of college, and offering a list of possibilities that fit their needs and wants.

You can make the most out of your high school counselor meeting by doing some work beforehand. Try to make some internal inquiries and decide what it is you’re looking for out of your college experience. The counselors will then be able to focus on translating what you want into tangible places where you can achieve it.

Also see: Top questions to ask on a college campus visit

5. Find schools that share similarities to your initial choices

Once you have an idea of a couple of different schools that interest you, try to find the defining characteristics about these schools. Then, search for other schools that share these characteristics. Online forums such as Subreddits can be useful in this step of the search. You can try Googling “Schools like [Add school name]” and see what other posters are writing. You might just find your dream school through a college admissions forum!

Another approach is to put the defining characteristics of your prospective schools into words. Let’s say you were interested in Kenyon College and Oberlin College. Both are small liberal arts schools located in the Midwest. So, you could search “Top liberal arts colleges in the Midwest” and find a list of schools that might be just what you’re looking for.

6. Ensure that you’ve included reach, match, and safety schools

Creating an effective college list is a delicate art; in addition to finding colleges that interest you, you have to find an array of colleges that you have varying chances of gaining admission to. It’s a good idea to include several safety, reach, and match schools in your list.

Put succinctly, a safety school is a school that you have good reason to believe you’ll gain admission to. Your test scores and GPA should both fall on the upper end of the percentiles of admitted students. A match school is a school where you fall more in an average percentile in these statistics, whereas at a reach school, you should fall somewhere in the lower percentile.

Applying to a spread of all three types of schools ensures that you have a place to go in the fall, and increases the chances that you will get at least one college offer with generous financial aid. What’s more, you’ll be able to try your luck at prestigious and competitive schools and find out whether you’ve gained admission. 

No matter how the dice land, you’ll end up happy as long as you’ve included a spread of reach, match, and safety schools.

7. Aim for diversity

Another key to an effective college list is a diversity in the types of schools you’re applying to. Even though you may think that you’re sure you want to attend a big school, or an urban school, or whatever your preferences are, it’s always a good idea to include at least one school that does not fall into this paradigm.

This is because the college application is a learning process. Your opinion could change at the drop of a hat, and if it does, you’ll be thankful that you included a school with some different characteristics in your list. Many college visits take place after the time when applications are submitted, so it’s always possible your opinion can change even up until decision day.

8. Check if you qualify for college application waivers

Many students are restricted in the number of schools they apply to due to the fact that applications can be pricey. With fees landing between $50 – $100, it’s no small investment to apply to eight or nine schools. But some students may be able to eliminate this hurdle by applying for application fee waivers. This way, you can apply to more schools and increase the chances that you end up at a school where you’re happy.

9. Begin to narrow down your list

As we said at the beginning of this article, it’s best to cast a wide net to begin with. But once you’ve gathered a list of schools, it’s time to begin whittling it down. One great way to do so is with a college comparison spreadsheet. These allow you to put each school toe-to-toe and compare their merits and faults. This way, you can help decide which schools are a better fit than others.

Key takeaways

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • When building your college list, start with self-reflection and use the schools you already know about as a jumping-off point
  • Cast a wide net and narrow down your list as you research each school individually and refine your wants and needs through college visits
  • Be sure to talk to people who are in college and who have attended schools that interest you
  • Don’t be afraid to utilize your high school counselor
Key Takeaways

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