Crafting your school list is one of the most daunting parts of the college application process. Which schools are the right fit? Do your academics and overall profile match the requirements for the schools you love?
We’re here to help. Click through our step-by-step guide below to develop the perfect school list for your student. Each lesson installment contains practical instructions, a specific assignment, and really awesome (and valuable) tools to guide you through the process.
Let’s start with a question that we hear all the time at Signet: With over 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., where does my journey to finding the perfect college begin?
Answer: It begins right here, right now, with YOU.
To begin, we want you to reflect on what it is that YOU are looking for in a college.
Notice we didn’t say what your parents or your friends are looking for: we want to know what YOU think. It’s your future, after all — no one else can make these decisions on your behalf. That’s a little scary, but that’s the deal you make coming into the process: college is all about becoming your own person, determining your own future.
Let’s get started!
Now it’s on to Step 2, where we’ll look at how to research colleges based on the info you supplied in your Personal College Inventory. (Psst: If you haven’t done the PCI yet, go back to Lesson 1 and do it now!)
With the PCI, you determined a set of qualities that you want your future college to have. Now we’re going to get you familiar with some of the resources available to help you find colleges that match your interests.
- Step 1: Download the Resource Guide for Researching Schools. The Resource Guide contains a list of the resources that we have vetted and thoroughly recommend. While there are hundreds of tools out there, we feel these are the best and easiest to use.
- Step 2: Check out this Prezi to familiarize yourself with the tools and what they can do for you.
- Step 3: Spend some time with the Web sites listed to get a feel for how to navigate them.
Don’t worry about finding the right colleges just yet – this is our “exploratory phase.” We’ll start building out your list in the next few lessons!
In Step 1, you figured out what’s important to you in a college. In Step 2, you got familiar with some of the best tools to use when researching colleges. This installment is really the meatiest one in the course, so put your concentration cap on. Today, we’re going to walk you through the process of developing the first draft of your college list.
(Cue dramatic music. Dim the stage lights. We’re on, people!)
Here’s what to do (and here’s a Prezi to take you through it)
- Step 1: Grab your completed Personal College Inventory worksheet. Read it over again and make any changes you feel are necessary.
- Step 2: Collect your GPA and SAT or ACT scores. If you don’t know your GPA, check in with your guidance office about it. If you haven’t taken your SAT or ACT yet, try to use a PSAT or practice diagnostic to estimate your score.
- Step 3: Use the research tools we showed you to start a list of colleges. You’ll filter by GPA, test scores, and the features you identified on your Personal College Inventory.
- Step 4: Start looking more closely into the colleges you find. Download our “Top Questions to Answer When Researching a School” worksheet for some inspiration on what to ask when researching a particular college.
- Step 5: As you find colleges that appeal to you, note them down on the School Research Tracking Sheet. Here’s something to remember: keeping good notes now will make it way easier to sort everything out afterwards.
- Step 6: Use our GPA vs. SAT/ACT Score Chart to determine the level of selectivity of the schools at which you will be looking. Remember, this is an an approximate guide, and nothing is set in stone. But it will help you get started.
Overall, you want 15–30 colleges on the first draft of your list. This list should be broken down into three groups of 5–10 colleges that fall into the following categories:
- Likely—below your GPA/SAT or ACT combination;
- Target—around your GPA/SAT or ACT combination;
- Reach—above your GPA/SAT or ACT combination.
If you find that you have too many colleges on your list, go back and think of them in terms of these categories. Pick your top 10 schools for each category. If you have too many in one category, start cutting and do more research in the other categories!
(Note: While mascots are cool — trust us, we love the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slug as much as the next sports fan — try to be a little more scientific than just looking at campus life in your college choices!)
A note about starting with your GPA and test scores: Colleges look at much more than just these two elements, so this is a crude method for judging your academic fit, but it’s the one that is most appropriate for a web-based guide.
For a more individualized approach, consider bringing in an expert. Our analysts and consultants will work with you to revise and improve your list based on your profile as a whole student.
This installment of our course always generates the most questions. We can’t answer them all, but we’ll take a moment to address two of the most common questions:
“There are so many colleges…where do I start?”
The easiest place to start looking is your GPA and test scores. You can also start with some of the features you identified on your Personal School Inventory, especially if they’re important to you. For example, if being at a small, rural college is most important to you, start there. If a strong engineering program is a must, start there. You can always work in the GPA/test scores later.
“No, really: there are WAY too many colleges! How am I ever going to narrow down my list?”
This is what your “Personal College Inventory” and your “Top Questions to Answer” worksheets are for. With these two documents, you should set determine what you’re looking for and then make sure to include or leave off colleges from your list accordingly.
This second question is so important that we’ve devoted the next installment to it, so stay tuned!
In Step 3, we walked you through creating a rough college list of 15–30 colleges. But let’s be real: there’s no way on earth you could send in high-quality applications to that many colleges, nor should you try to! With that in mind, it’s time to think about narrowing down your list.
Ideally, you’ll want your final college list to have no more than 8–12 colleges. In this installment, we’re going to give you some tips for narrowing your college list to 10–15 colleges. In our penultimate lesson, we’ll talk about using school visits to refine that down to your final list of 8–12 golden, just-right-for-you schools.
How do you do it?
Go with your gut.
Many students find that it’s easy to refine their list after researching each college in depth. Some colleges call out to them and others simply fade into the background. As long as you’ve done careful research, use your intuition and criteria from your Personal College Inventory. If you’re having trouble refining your list, check out our resources for some additional tips.
This is also a great point in the process to get an expert involved. Contact us to get help from a professional research analyst and former admissions officer.
If all has gone well, you should have a list of 10–15 colleges. (If you’re still not on track and want some personalized guidance, let us know! We’re here to help.)
Now that you’ve developed a draft college list and refined it once, we suggest (if possible) scheduling college visits to your top-choice colleges. Not everyone can manage multiple college visits, so don’t despair if you can’t make it. You can definitely still create an excellent college list without them. But if you can find a way to go visit your top schools, we always recommend it. There’s nothing that gives you a sense of the school like a trip there.
Planning college visits can be tricky: When should you go? How many colleges do you visit? How much do you budget? What do you need to look for?
Check out these guides for answers:
- Step 1: Download our School Visit Planning Guide here.
- Step 2: Use this bonus College Visit Day Guide when you’re on campus.
These two tools will help you plan your visit and get the absolute most out of it. Remember, your goal now is to whittle your list down to 8–12 schools.
If you can’t visit, try looking online for a virtual tour of campus and/or a video from the admissions office or other campus organizations. Some colleges may even hold alumni-organized information sessions in your town. With either of these options, you’ll get some sense for what each campus is like. You may even be able to answer some of the college visit questions by calling the admissions office and asking if you can talk to a current student.
You’re almost there. Welcome to the FINAL installment of the college list kit.
If you’ve stayed on track with us over the last few weeks, you may still have a few college visits outstanding but are close to having a finalized college list.
The time has finally come to put all of this information together and shift gears into application mode. (Yes, despite all the work you’ve done, you still have more to do! If you need to take a breather, take a quick look at these cat GIFs, then get back to work.
What you need to do now is move your attention from the specific details of a school (size, location, majors, etc.) to the specific details of the application (due dates, whether you’ll apply early, application requirements, etc.). In other words…it’s spreadsheet time. Go back to your School Research Tracking worksheet and start using the “Essay Writing Phase” columns of that spreadsheet.To ensure that you’ve covered all your bases and haven’t missed out on a great school that would be just perfect for you – or that you haven’t put all your eggs in one very competitive basket — consider having an professional analyst and former admissions officer double check your list. To do so, contact us here. And for heaven’s sake, get some rest: you’re going to need all your energy for the application process!