How to Build a College List

Creating a college list can be a huge undertaking!

There are over 2,000 four-year colleges in the United States, which can make it hard to formulate a concise, cohesive college list. But have no fear! There are tons of resources you can use to help you learn about schools.

One good book to check out is The Fiske Guide to Colleges. This review of over 300 colleges exposes applicants to the culture and opportunities at different schools.

If you prefer a digital text, take a look at College Navigator or BigFuture (by College Board). These resources provide applicants with comprehensive application and institutional data direct from the sources.

But hold up: There could be countless schools that fulfill your needs. How do you create a list that is robust enough to give you options, but tight enough that you can execute fantastic applications to all of them?

I suggest a list of about 10-15 schools. This allows you to have 3-4 reaches, 6-7 target schools, and 3-4 safeties. Any fewer and you might not have enough acceptances to choose from. Any more and you might not have enough time to create quality applications to all of them. Remember: balance is key.

When you first start researching schools, you may end up with a list that is 30+ schools long, and narrowing down your options can seem like a burdensome task. However, a few simple tips can help you refine your list with ease!

1. Compare opportunities: You will be presented with a number of different options as you go about your college career. Are you interested in going abroad? Would a co-op program help you with your career? If there is an opportunity at one school that you are excited about, make sure that option is available to you at other schools on your list!

2. Think about environment: The physical, academic, and social environment of a school is going to be important in determining what the best fit is. Where do you want to live? Focusing on a specific geographic area or environment (such as urban vs. rural) can help refine your college choices. Also think about diversity. What do you want your campus to look and feel like? Talking to current students can help you get a better sense of the school’s social and cultural landscape.

3. Go with your gut: At the end of the day, nobody can tell you what will make you comfortable better than yourself. Research each school carefully and go with the options that look best for you!

If you’d like a little more guidance, check out our very own College Admissions School Choice Worksheet. It will guide you through multiple factors you may want to consider as you generate and refine your list.

If creating the perfect college list is keeping you up at night, remember that applying and enrolling are two totally different things. Narrowing down this list doesn’t mean you are signing your life away! You can always visit your top choices again, maybe even attending events for admitted students, and make your final decision then. And hopefully, if you have curated a balanced and exciting school list, you will be faced with many attractive offers!

For a more detailed look at the college list, check out our free College List Kit.

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