One of the most daunting parts of the college application process is making a college list. There are thousands of options out there, and you have to narrow it down to five to fifteen schools (usually) that you think suit you best. To be honest, it’s terrifying. Just when I think I’ve got my college list down, I remember five or so colleges that I’ve looked at, liked and wanted to add to my list. It’s a never-ending cycle of adding, subtracting and headaches. And for every headache, there’s a pain-killer waiting for it to go away. It won’t cure it, obviously, but it does help! So here’s a couple of pain-killers to cure your seemingly never-ending headache over making the perfect college list.
If you know what you want to major in or an area in which you want to study, research lists on the internet that tell you the top schools for that area. You aren’t going to be able to find all of the right colleges for your field of study by just seeing if the college has the major or by the schools that your counselor might recommend. Looking at rankings on websites like this one or this one. These lists shouldn’t be the deciding factor between two colleges, but they can open up new doors to colleges that you didn’t know about before. After you find a college you’re interested in on a list, then go into the in-depth research on the college’s website. Look at things like their previous class’ profile, or statistics for the class like percentage of each ethnicity, percentiles of SAT scores and region distribution, to name a few (here’s an example from the University of Chicago’s Class of 2022). Also, look at their application requirements and see the major you want to apply to requires extra materials, as well as a course catalog to see what kind of courses you would be taking if you enrolled. This will help you narrow down your search dramatically so that you’re not just going blindly into a college and assuming that if they offer the major, that the quality of the teaching and coursework is good.
Narrow down your criteria. Using college search engines like BigFuture or College Confidential (which also doubles as a forum!) can help you find the right colleges that fit a wide variety of different qualities. Some of the major criteria include total undergraduate enrollment size, public or private institution, location, research opportunities, graduation rate (remember, high is good and low is bad!), and diversity in the student body. Some students might want to attend a state flagship with a large number of enrolled undergraduates, while others might want to attend a small private liberal arts school. Another quality that might be of interest is the student life (lots of clubs on campus, school spirit culture, and the type of campus all contribute to student life) and Greek life (if the college has fraternities or sororities, and if they’re safe or not). While most students might not consider these factors as big as the other ones that have been previously mentioned, everybody has different priorities and preferences. Using criteria to nail down the type of college you like will help you distinguish between a college that’s the right fit for you and a college that you think is “perfect”.
Once you’ve narrowed down some colleges, go on their website and take a virtual tour and/or watch as many videos about life on campus as you can. If you live close enough or have the resources to visit the campus in-person, do so! Your priority after creating a rough draft list is to imagine yourself at the colleges you’ve selected. If you can’t see yourself living on the campus or don’t feel like it’s the right fit when you visit (whether virtually or in real life), then there’s no reason to apply. This applies even to your safety schools. Now, sometimes you just need an extra safety school to apply to just because you want to feel secure in the college process, and that’s perfectly fine. Nobody’s perfect. But try to investigate most of the schools on your narrowed down list and find out if you like what you see.
Hear what other people have to say. Lots of times a college looks perfect on the outside, but there are some things that you might not like going on on the inside. It could be as small as bad food every once in a while, or it could be as big as the Varsity Blues scandal that was uncovered earlier this year. Websites like these can really help you see the college through another perspective, which is mostly that of students and their parents. However, take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Some people are overdramatic, but if there are multiple people describing the same issue, then it’s probably a good indicator that that issue is something affecting a lot of the student population. If you can, try to get in contact with someone that reviewed the college to understand the situation or feel free to email a counselor at the school about the situation (always be respectful when contacting someone, even someone off of a forum). If you visit the college, you could even ask the students there about rumors or things that you’ve read that give the school a negative image. They’re the ones that will probably be the most honest with you about their experience with the university. Use your resources to get a full impression of a college.
If you know you’re going to need a lot of financial assistance, look at the statistics. Look at a college’s average total cost to attend each year, the number of scholarships offered (you can find this on their website), and the average percent of financial need met. You can also consult students and forums (as mentioned above) on their experiences with financial aid offers. I know for me, I have to look at schools with at least 70% of demonstrated financial need met, because I can’t even come close to affording college normally. Most colleges have a calculator on their website that will determine your EFC (or the amount that you’re expected to pay for college each year) and how they will help you cover the costs that you’re not expected to pay for. It’s not an official financial aid package, but it is a great indicator of the general amount you would receive if you were accepted.
Don’t become fixated on a school just because everyone says it’s prestigious, or that if you want to “be somebody” you have to go there. Most people have this problem with schools like the Ivy Leagues and Stanford. Don’t apply if you’re not the right fit. Don’t get so wrapped up in their prestige that you forget why you’re even considering applying in the first place. If you can’t see yourself at Columbia’s campus in NYC or don’t like the cold weather in Dartmouth’s small college town, then don’t apply! The more selective a school is, the more they usually require from applicants in terms of short essays, test scores, and demonstrated interest. Don’t put time and work into a “special” school if you don’t like everything about in the first place, because those applications are a lot more work than most other colleges.
Lastly, stick to your gut. Your gut knows you better than anyone. If all the stats for a school impress you and you’re really interested, but you get a bad gut feeling about it, go with it. Same thing for good gut feelings about colleges that might not stack up so well on paper. Only go for what you’re confident will be a great fit for you, even if you’re not confident that you will get accepted.
These are the things that have really helped begin narrowing down my college list (which is still way too many colleges). Everyone’s experiences with picking colleges are going to be different, but these are the things that a lot of students should be looking for in a “good fit” college. I will also link some articles and websites that I could not incorporate into the article below. Hopefully, your college list stress headache has been somewhat subdued.