How to Make Your College List

Before you begin crafting your college application, there is one important question that you need to address: where are you going to apply? When it comes to all the schools available for you, the list goes on and on, so here’s our quick guide to narrowing it down to your own college list.

Building a List

Before you begin looking at different schools, you first need to consider the general structure of your college list. One of the easiest places to start is thinking about how many schools you want to apply to. While application fees and academic workload can affect the number of schools you apply for, we generally recommend 10-14 schools as well as a healthy balance between “reach,” “fit,” and “safety” schools. Most admissions pages on school websites will also list the statistics of their accepted students, whether that be their test scores, GPA, or simply the acceptance rate.

When looking at this information, you should compare your own test scores and GPA to those of students who currently attend and consider acceptance rates in order to identify whether a school is a “reach,” where your profile is below that of the average student, a “fit”, where your profile matches up well with the average student, or a “safety,” where your profile is higher than that of the average student. Websites like Naviance will also allow you to view the average GPA and SAT/ACT score of students who were waitlisted or rejected from a school so that you can identify an estimated cutoff. While a “reach” school’s high bar for academics shouldn’t deter you from applying to a school, you should make sure to balance it out with other schools where you’re more likely to be accepted. Which is why we recommend that half of the schools you apply to are “fit” schools, a quarter are “reach” schools, and a quarter are “safety” schools.

Identify Your Deal Makers and Breakers

While every school will have its own unique culture, there are a few factors that you can consider before diving in too deeply that may have a large sway on whether or not you can see yourself attending, and should be the first things you consider when deciding to apply. We’ve listed the most common ones for you below.

  • Distance from home: Some students don’t mind a large distance between their family and their school, while others would rather be able to go home frequently and see their family often.
  • City vs rural: Would you prefer to be in a more urban setting where the schools fits into a greater city or would you rather have your school be the most prominent feature of the area?
  • Financial aid policies: Some schools offer merit-based scholarships that require certain levels of academic success, whereas other institutions offer needs-based financial aid that only considers a student’s household income.
  • Size: Look at the school’s data on average class size as well as the total number of undergraduate students. Do you see yourself fitting into a small community where faculty to student ratios are close or would you prefer a large student body where you can meet a plethora of new people?
  • Departments: Is there a specific field of study that you want to pursue in college that has to be offered in order for you to consider applying?
  • Sports, clubs, and activities: Are there certain teams or student groups that you want to be a part of and can’t imagine not having as a part of your college experience?

Understanding Whether it’s a Fit

Now that you’ve done a general overview of a school’s background, you can move on to less tangible markers of whether or not you would like to apply. Explore the school’s offerings and learn how their academic system works. Do they run on a quarter system or a semester system? Are transcripts letter grades or pass/fail? Do you have many graduation requirements and prerequisites, or is the curriculum more open? These questions will help guide your thought process in deciding whether or not a school is a good fit for you. In addition, try and find ways to learn about a school from the first-person perspective; reach out to current students, alumni, and admissions representatives who either attend or speak on behalf of the school. They will be able to give you more specific answers on what attending a school is really like.

Outline the Application Steps

Once you have your college list assembled, find out what their application entails. Visit their admissions page and write down important deadlines for application and financial aid submissions. Now that you know where you want to apply, you can now also note what supplementary questions each school requires and begin to brainstorm.

Build your own college list with a Harvard student mentor who can lead you start to finish on your college applications!