Guide on How to Build a College List

Abigail Eun
Abigail Eun

Abigail Eun is a freelance writer and personal finance expert. Through diligent research and continuous learning, she has honed her knowledge in budgeting, saving, investing, and debt management. Abigail is passionate about helping people get their finances in order. She believes that everyone should have access to the information they need to make sound financial decisions. Her goal is to provide clear and concise information that is easy to understand.

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February 13, 2023

Building a college list, or a list of colleges and universities you’d be interested in applying to, is an important step when applying to college. 

It can help you identify your best-fit colleges, narrow down your options, and make informed decisions about where to apply and ultimately attend. 

If you don’t know how to build a college list, follow these steps. 

Start Early

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your college list shouldn’t be either. 

If you have the opportunity to do so, start building your college list during your junior year of high school. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to research colleges, gather information, and make informed decisions. 

Starting early can also help you reflect on your priorities and goals, without the pressure and stress of impending deadlines.

Create a List of Must-Haves

Whether it’s a fierce school spirit, an emphasis on STEM fields, or rich research opportunities, brainstorm a list of qualities you want your future college to have. This will help you narrow down your college list by allowing you to see how the schools you’ve selected differ.

Here are some factors you can consider: 

Inside the Classroom

  • How big is the average classroom?
  • Do you prefer large or small classroom sizes?
  • What kind of academic resources does the college have?
  • What major/field of study is the college known for?
  • What are the top programs at the college?

Outside the Classroom

  • How many clubs (that you would be interested in) are there on campus?
  • What do students do for fun?
  • Is the campus walkable? Do you need a bike?
  • Do students generally live on campus or off campus?
  • Does the college provide housing for all four years?
  • Is Greek life prominent on campus?
  • What does the social scene look like?

Beyond the Campus

  • Is the campus in a small town or a big city? Which do you prefer?
  • What does the weather look like?
  • Is the nearest city accessible?
  • Is the neighborhood safe?
  • What do students usually do on the weekends?
  • Where are the nearest malls/grocery stores?
  • How easy is it to get off campus? Does the school provide transportation, or do you need your own car?

Student and Alumni Makeup

  • What is the most popular major?
  • Is the student body demographic diverse or homogenous?
  • What fields of work do graduates usually enter?
  • What’s the average graduate’s starting salary?
  • Are there any notable alumni?
  • Does the school offer need-based or need-blind financial aid?

College Statistics

  • What is the national school ranking?
  • What is the student graduation rate?
  • What is the student retention rate?
  • What is the annual tuition?

Research Schools

After narrowing down the qualities you want in a college, it’s time to start digging. Take advantage of the Internet by looking into schools of interest, reading articles, and using different online tools.

Niche is a useful site to look through if you want to know more about how different colleges are ranked in the United States.

If you want to know more about a school’s numbers, consider using the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. The website gives each college a “scorecard,” which tells you everything about the school’s graduation rate, financial aid costs, test scores, and acceptance rates.

The College Board also has a great college search tool that allows you to explore colleges by filtering through location, major, type, and campus life.

Create a Document With All the Details

Now that you have an idea of what schools you might be interested in, along with the qualities you look for in a school, it’s time to get it all on paper. List out each of the schools, how they rank in terms of the qualities you’re looking for, and whether they’re a safety, match, or reach school

Safety SchoolsMatch SchoolsReach Schools
A safety school is one where the student is virtually guaranteed admission.A match school is one where the student has a good chance of admission.A reach school is one where the student has a slim chance of admission.

Many online tools can help you determine which category the school falls into based on your academic profile, standardized test scores, GPA, and more. It’s important to have a mix of safety, match, and reach schools to increase your overall chance of admission.

Consider using this sample college profile as inspiration:

School: UNC-Chapel Hill
Category: Match
Acceptance Rate: 21%
Potential Major: Computer Science
Undergraduate Size: 19,743
National Ranking: 29
Annual Cost of Tuition: Assessed on a per credit hour basis
City: College town in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Weather: Has all four seasons, sunnier than northeast schools
Total Amount of Clubs: 976
Potential clubs: Apples Service-Learning Program, ArtHeels
General Thoughts: First public university in the United States, well-known for academics, lots of school spirit…

Narrow Down the List

Narrowing down a college list can be challenging, but it’s an important part of the college search process. Generally, it’s recommended that students have anywhere between 5-10 colleges on their college list. Here are some steps to help you narrow down your college list:

#1: Speak With Current Students and Alumni

Speaking with current students and alumni at the schools you are interested in is an effective way to learn more about a school and determine whether you’d be interested in attending. 

You can do this in several ways:

  • Reach out to the school’s admissions office and ask them to put you in contact with a current student.
  • Connect with a student or alumni on LinkedIn.
  • Speak with any high school alumni who attend/attended the school.
  • Participate in a Student for a Day program. Some schools will allow you to tag along with a student for a day to get a feel for what it’d be like to attend the university.

Make sure to ask them specific questions like:

  • What is your favorite and least favorite part about attending?
  • Do you feel like professors are helpful and responsive to your needs?
  • Do you feel supported by your academic advisor?
  • How easy or difficult was it to settle in here? (ie. to make friends, to find clubs to join, etc.)

#2: Tour the Campus

There’s no better way to determine your “fit” with a school than visiting it. This way, you can really get a feel for what the school is like and decide whether you can see yourself there for the next four years.

However, visiting in person isn’t always a make-it-or-break-it for determining whether you “fit” at a school. There are plenty of students who never visited the campus and ended up loving it, and vice versa.

If visiting in person isn’t an option for you, check whether or not the school has a tool that allows you to do virtual tours. Youtube is another great place to see what a school looks like. 

#3: Seek Advice

Talk to guidance counselors, teachers, and other trusted adults to get additional perspectives. Speaking to individuals who have been through the process before can help you gain some insights into how you can whittle down your college list.

#4: Have a Serious Talk With Your Parents About Affording College 

Whether or not affordability is a factor in determining which colleges you want to apply to, it’s important to have a serious talk with your parents about paying for your education. This way, your parents will have a general idea of what costs to expect, while you can gain more exposure to what finance in the real world looks like.

Speak with your parents to determine what is and what isn’t affordable.

Stay Open to the Possibilities

It’s important to keep an open mind throughout the college application process. While attending your top school may be your #1 goal, it may not always be the case that things work out the way you want them to.

Nothing is set in stone — you may be surprised by the offers you receive from other colleges and where you end up.

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