Refining Your College List

Refining Your College List

By now, if you’re a junior in high school, you should be thinking about putting together your college list. This is the compilation of schools to which you’ll be applying next fall.

Based on matching your talents and preferences with colleges’ resources and academic competitiveness, your college list should ideally give you 2–3 safety schools, 3–4 target schools, and 2–3 reach schools on which to focus your efforts.

(Applying to any more will spread your attention too thin!) If you’ve only just begun to think about where to apply, see our other posts and resources to help you get started.

However, if you’ve begun looking into possible colleges, you’ve probably realized what a monumental task this is. There is a lot of introspection and research to be done, as well as strategic thinking about where you fit and where you’ll be most competitive.

Even after you’ve gone through the hard work of using search engines, reading reviews, and checking admissions websites, you may be struggling to narrow down a list of 20 similar schools to your final list of 8–10.

How do you differentiate between schools that meet your preferences and seem so similar to one another?

Here are a few of our ideas:

The biggest help at this point would be to visit the campuses, take lots of pictures, speak to as many students as possible, and write down your impressions as soon as you’re done with the visit. That way, you’ll have records and memories of each place that will help you distinguish one from another. If you can’t visit the schools, try looking for admissions videos online; these may help you get a feel for each campus.

You should also look into the logistics of getting to and from each school. Many liberal arts colleges, for example, are located in rural areas an hour or more away from the nearest airport. What will it take for you to get to college from home? A bus and a plane? Two planes, a train, and a taxi? This can also be indicative of how close the school is to a metropolitan area. If it’s important for you to have access to the culture and nightlife a city can offer, consider how you’ll get from campus to that city.

Study abroad opportunities, diversity of the student body, average temperatures during the school year, and specific library collections or research labs might also be the factor that sways you, so be sure to look into those aspects of each college. That information is usually found on the admissions page of each school.

One final way to narrow down your list is to pinpoint each college’s quirky traditions.

Every college has them, but each is unique. From Reed’s Renn Fayre, to Harvard’s Primal Scream, to Pomona’s Ski Beach, one of these traditions is likely to strike you as awesome (or lame), potentially helping you shorten your short list.

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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