Making a college list is one of the first steps – and one of the key steps – to completing your college application and getting into your dream school. It helps you organize your application, set realistic goals, and make use of appropriate opportunities.
In this post, I’ll be teaching you how to make an effective college list as a high school student. Whether you’re an underclassman or an upperclassman, this guide will help you get started on one of the most important steps of college applications.
A quick disclaimer: I am not a professional, and the steps for creating a college list will vary for each student. This post is based on personal experience, and you should not depend wholly on my advice.
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Just like the rest of your college applications, you should start early. It’s never too early to determine your dream schools, so even if you’re only a high school freshman, this is a good time to start making your college list.
If you want to procrastinate until the last minute, the latest you should allow yourself is junior year (11th grade). Know that you’ll start applying to colleges the summer after this year (and probably start planning during this year), so it’s best to start early!
Start with a BIG list
Depending on your preferences and how many essays you want to write, you’ll likely only be applying to 7-12 schools (this is the recommended number, though you’re free to apply to however many you’d like).
However, every student should start with a big list of around 15-20 schools. You can list all the colleges you’ve heard of and have an interest in, all the schools in your area, etc.
Starting with a big list will make it unlikely that you miss any schools you may have wanted to apply to, and help you gauge which schools are worth applying to and which are not.
Once you’ve got a big list ready, you can start identifying and comparing certain factors of each one to determine which schools should be your top priorities.
The most obvious requirements to look at are the following:
- GPA (weighted/unweighted)
- SAT and/or ACT
- AP test scores
- Leadership experience
- Personal projects
Very few schools list out an admission criterion for the public to reference, but you can get an idea of what the “accepted student” generally looks like by researching what activities an accepted student was engaged in.
You can find many of these by searching up “How I got into _____” on YouTube. There are countless such videos online, and new ones appear after every admission season. However, it’s important to know that you should not base your own application on what you learn from these videos.
People make these videos to give you an idea and a rough guide if you don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t try to copy exactly what they did and think that this will ensure your admission into a certain school. It will not.
Just keep a certain GPA and specific test scores in mind, and aim towards these goals as you approach college applications. As for the extracurriculars, treat the examples you see as inspirations and try to find or create opportunities that are ideal for you.
Meanwhile, compare these statistics and differentiate between a safety school, a reach school, and a match school.
Safety, Match, and Reach schools
These labels should be relatively simple to differentiate. Though you can never be certain that a school will accept or reject you, you can compare your stats with those of the average undergraduate student.
A safety school is one in which you’re practically guaranteed admission. This could be due to their high acceptance rate or because your stats are easily above their “accepted student” criteria.
A match school is a school in which your stats are at their “accepted student” criteria. You have a relatively nice chance of getting into these schools, so you can apply confidently.
A reach school is a school in which your stats are below their “accepted student” criteria. For most students, these are the Ivy Leagues and elite universities. You may have a much lower chance of getting into these schools, but it doesn’t hurt to try!
The next thing to consider when making your college list– or rather, cutting it down– is its location. There are two aspects to evaluate: absolute and relative locations.
Consider where the school is located. Is it within your country? Within your state? What city is it in? These factors can influence how much the tuition costs, for public schools usually cost less for in-state students.
In addition, consider the distance from your home to this school. Think about your travel preferences; if the campus was far, would you prefer living on/near campus or at home? Would you be willing to transfer all your furniture and belongings to the new location, or would you have to buy a bunch of new ones? Lastly, will you be homesick and therefore be emotionally distressed due to where you are?
Next, research a little about the weather in the college’s area. Though this shouldn’t be a huge factor in your college decisions, it’s helpful to know which areas you’d thrive in and which you might have a little trouble adjusting to.
These are all things to consider about a school’s absolute location. Next, examine the location’s relative location.
A college’s relative location includes the opportunities and features that are near the school, such as stores, restaurants, apartments, museums, police departments…
Also consider whether the college is in an urban, suburban, or rural setting. This may or may not be a deciding factor for you, but it also ties in other aspects like public safety, living costs, etc.
Therefore, research a little about each college’s location, as well as the neighborhood it is in. This should help you further cut down your college list!
YOU’LL LOVE THIS POST: College Prep Checklist For High School Upperclassmen
Undergrad class size
There are various-sized colleges all over the country. Some public colleges resemble a small town, while other private universities are quite small. Determine whether you prefer a large undergraduate class size or not, and edit your list accordingly.
If you’re not sure which you prefer, consider the following:
Are you more of an extrovert or introvert? Take your personality into account and consider which environment you would enjoy better. However, this could vary for every person.
For example, some introverts prefer to “blend with the crowd” and therefore choose large schools. On the other hand, some believe in “fewer people = less interaction” and choose smaller schools. This is completely up to you!
- Learning preferences
Another factor to consider is how you prefer to learn and interact with others in a classroom. If you are an independent learner who thrives without a teacher’s intervention, a large school probably works for you.
Meanwhile, if you struggle on your own and need a guide to answer your questions and give you steps to follow, a smaller campus might be better, as you have higher chances of interacting with your professor to get help.
A school’s tuition cost is arguably one of the most important things to consider; after all, this is what you’ll have to pay in order to actually attend the college.
You can almost always find a school’s average tuition cost through a quick Google search. Make sure to compare the prices for before and after financial aid, as well as different levels of financial aid provided for different income levels.
In general, most students qualify for some type of financial aid. If you are a student in the United States, you can visit the Federal Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) to apply for federal financial aid.
In addition, you can also apply to scholarships to potentially cut down the tuition cost. Scholarships are like competitions; there are countless scholarships out there with varying requirements and rewards.
Few scholarships offer a “full-ride” to a college (paying the entire tuition for you), but most offer some sort of financial reward. You can visit websites like fastweb.com/ to search and apply for scholarships. Note that many will ask you to write essays in order to better decide who to reward it to.
At this point, you should have a smaller list ready. If not, that’s alright! This last point should help you cut down your list to a few ideal schools.
This last step involves researching each school’s “expertise” and student life. There are two things to consider: the classes offered and the college’s flexibility with your major and interests.
Ideally, you should have an idea of what major you’d like to pursue or what field you’d like to go into in the future. Knowing this will help you decide what classes to take in college and which college to attend to maximize your exposure to these fields.
For example, if you’d like to study biology, you want to choose a college that offers courses like anatomy, biophysics, forensic biology, etc. Similarly, if you’d like to study computer science, look for schools that offer a variety of courses like artificial intelligence, data logic, and computer theory.
Though most schools (especially large, public universities) offer a variety of courses for many majors, certain ones will be much more specific. If you’re passionate about a certain major, you definitely want to research these schools.
Especially if you’re not 100% set on a “dream major” yet, you want to find a school that leaves enough space for you to explore and experience comfortably.
This means a school that doesn’t require you to declare a major super early, one that allows you to switch majors relatively easily, and one where creating a near-perfect schedule (and remaking it if necessary) isn’t too difficult.
This may be hard to research, and the easiest way would be to get advice from current students in a specific college. However, if you can’t find the information you need, just focus on the first point (finding a college that is a good environment for your major of interest)!
What’s important to you?
Now that you’ve got all these factors listed out and compared, it should be easier to cut down on your giant list. Note that you don’t have to follow this post in exact order, for this is just a guide with some important ideas.
Decide what your priorities are and go through your list in that order. Rank each school accordingly (you can score them on a scale if you’d like!) and remove the low-ranking ones from your list as you finish.
And that’s it! With this guide, you’ll be able to make an ideal college list and waste much less time struggling to choose between colleges. If this post helped, leave a comment down below with your dream school (I’ll cheer for you!).
And if you’re looking for more posts like this, check these out:
- The Complete College Prep Guide For High School Underclassmen
- The Complete College Prep Guide For High School Upperclassmen
- 20 Actionable Steps To Become An Outstanding Student