How to Build a Stellar College List

How to Build a Stellar College List

There’s a lot of talk about “fit” throughout the college admissions process.

Students’ essays may revolve around why they’re a good fit at a particular college. And when college admissions officers assess applicants, they’ll consider whether a student fits their school academically, socially, and otherwise.

Ensuring that this process runs smoothly begins long before writing an essay or submitting an application. First, students need to build a college list complete with schools they believe are a good fit for them.

5 Steps to Building a College List

How can students and their parents go about creating a stellar college list? Here’s a step-by-step guide:

1. Reflect on college preferences and needs

Start by helping your student reflect on what they’re looking for in a college. Remember that it’s not about what you as a parent want for them or what their friends are doing—it’s about how your student envisions their future.

Use our Personal College Inventory as a jumping-off point for thinking about different aspects of college. Have your student honestly complete this worksheet and rank the categories.

If you find that your vision is different from your student’s, talk to them about it! The beginning stages of this process are dynamic, and good communication is critical.

2. Research schools

Once your student has their rough preferences and outline, it’s time to dig in and learn more about the colleges beyond the name, location, and other high-level factors. We recommend using these resources:

  • BigFuture. Run by College Board, BigFuture provides general information and descriptions about each college. It’s a trusted resource for finding the student-to-faculty ratio, average SAT/ACT range at the school, selectivity rating, and more.
  • Naviance/SCOIR. These resources, which are available through students’ high schools, provide basic information about colleges plus the application success rate from the student’s high school to help students understand how competitive they are.
  • Niche. Hearing perspectives from the students attending a college is incredibly valuable, and Niche allows high schoolers and their parents to do just that.
  • College Results Online. This website is known for its robust search feature. For instance, if a student is interested in robotics, they can search the schools that offer it as a major.
  • Fiske Guide. Students find this resource, which offers a general perspective on the colleges that interest them, incredibly accessible.


3. Make the first college list

Now, students are ready to begin building their first college list. Here’s what that process typically looks like:

  1. Review the Personal College Inventory and make changes if necessary.
  2. Gather and review GPA and SAT/ACT scores.
  3. Use tools like Naviance/SCOIR and a GPA vs. SAT/ACT score chart to determine the level of selectivity for each school.
  4. Use preferences and selectivity information to start searching for specific schools.
  5. Note down colleges that seem like a good fit in a spreadsheet. Keeping detailed notes will make it easier to sort out information later in the process.


4. Refine the college list

Time to narrow down the choices!

At this point, students should have a college list that fits their needs, wants, and skills. But there’s no way they can send in high-quality applications to 15+ colleges.

So, what’s the magic number? We recommend applying to no more than 8-12 schools: 2-3 safety schools, 3-4 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools.

Keep in mind that finalizing a student’s college list is a family decision. Don’t be shy to disagree; at the same time, be sure to listen to your student with an open mind and heart.

Having trouble refining the list? Here’s what to do:

  • Visit campuses or do a virtual tour.
  • Consider the logistics of getting to and from each school.
  • Imagine life at each school. What clubs will the student join? What classes will they take?
  • Conduct more research.


5. Organize the college list

Finally, students can begin shifting to application mode.

Help your student finalize their spreadsheet and include links to a folder for each of their 8-12 schools. The research spreadsheet will now transform into a priority document that lists due dates, whether your student will apply Early Action or Early Decision, specific application requirements, and more.

For more information about all things college-related, check out our Guide to College Admissions.

It’s always helpful to get trusted second opinions at this point in the process. An outside perspective can help students and parents identify common themes or missed opportunities.

If your family could use support building a college list, Signet’s admissions consultants are here to help. Contact us today to discuss your student’s needs.

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