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How to Build a College List

Deciding which colleges to apply to is often agonizing. There are thousands of schools across the country, and students are applying to more schools than ever. This is one of the first things we work on with students who come to us; after all, if we’re going to help with your application, we need to know where exactly you’re applying to.

In this article, we’ll go through how we build a college list, the various factors you should take into account when building your own list, and some advice on how to know which colleges you have a good chance of getting into. Every student is different, with their own strengths and concerns, and this advice will all be somewhat general. We hope that this article gives you a good place to begin your search; if you want more personalized advice we urge you to schedule a free consultation with us.

A Balanced College List

Every college list should include three types of schools: 

  1. Reach schools. These are schools where you can gain admission, but the odds are long.
  2. Target schools. These are schools where you have a good chance of getting accepted, but it isn’t certain.
  3. Safety schools. These are schools where your acceptance is guaranteed.

What a balanced list looks like will vary by student, but we usually recommend 1-2 safety schools, and an even split between reach and target schools, usually weighting more on target schools. This of course depends on the priorities of the student. If you want to attend an Ivy League or an Ivy Plus school, and nothing else will do, then your list should include almost entirely reach schools, with a few target and safety schools there for safety.

Ivy League schools, and other institutions with an admissions rate below 10%, should always be treated as reach schools. Even the most qualified students have no guarantee of being accepted, there are simply too many qualified students relative to the number of available spaces.

What counts as a reach, target, or safe school for you depends on how good your grades are, how high your test scores are, what extracurriculars you have done, and how qualified colleges will see you as. We’ve written before about what colleges look for in applicants, and how well prepared you are can and should impact which colleges you apply to.

We caution against adding schools like Harvard or Stanford to your list “just to see,” especially if your grades don’t measure up. Candidates who are obviously academically unqualified will have their applications discarded in the first round of reviews, and the work you do perfecting those schools’ essays will be for naught. 

How to Build Your College List

Step One: Establish Priorities

Before you begin adding colleges to your list, you need to determine exactly what you’re looking for from a school. The largest factors we see when our students are building lists are status, location, and affordability, but there are dozens of different factors which can impact your choice of college. Therefore, you need to determine what exactly you want from a school before you can know which schools will provide that.

Affordability is a major concern for many students and families, so we’ll take a moment to address it separately. College is quite expensive, and we have a whole article on financial aid. One of the best ways to afford college is to limit how much you will have to pay. Applying to in-state state schools or to schools where you are overqualified is a good place to start.

In-state tuition is almost always lower, and we recommend not applying to state schools out of state normally. If, however, you have excellent grades, then the merit scholarships at state schools are often better, and these can reduce or eliminate much of the costs of college. This is especially true if you are accepted into an honors program. While these schools may not have the same name recognition as Ivy League schools, that does not make them inferior.

Step Two: Determine Where You Can Get In

For this step, you should compare your academic standings to the average accepted by various schools. Your GPA, class rank, test scores, and other factors are the first things schools look at, and if yours are too far below a school’s average, they will discard your application quickly.

For reach schools, your GPA and test scores should be at or around the 25th percentile range; which is to say lower than 75% of the students the school admitted. Schools still admit students at this range, but it is rarer. You can find average test scores and GPAs for many schools in our university fact sheets.

For target schools, your scores should be around average for an admitted student. For your safety schools, your scores and grades should be above the 75th percentile.

Some schools practice automatic admission, including UT Austin and Texas A&M. If you qualify for automatic admission to a school, then you can count the school as a safety. We should note for UT Austin, however, that automatic admission to the school does not mean automatic admission to your first-choice major, so you still have to put some effort into your application.

Step Three: Decide How Many Applications You Want to Do

This is the final step when building a list. You need to think about how many applications you want to do, how many essays you want to write, and what each college asks for. College applications require a serious resource investment; from time spent writing essays to the application fees themselves. You need to decide with your family how much you want to invest in the process.

We usually recommend students apply to around ten colleges. Students who are looking to maximize their chances of getting into a top school, or who want to play the field for merit scholarships, sometimes apply to more.

Top schools often ask for more essays, though if you plan on applying to honors programs you should be prepared to do additional essays for each of those as well. We recommend reading our article on supplemental essays for advice on writing them as efficiently as possible.

The earlier you finish your list, the more time you’ll have to complete your applications, and the more polished they will be. We, therefore, suggest beginning work on this list in the spring of your Junior year. This way, you can also visit any colleges you are uncertain about over the summer, before settling on their inclusion on your list.

Your Final College List

Everyone’s college list will look different because all students are different. Your list should reflect your own priorities and should be a realistic reflection of where you can expect to gain acceptance to college. While it is fine to dream big, you should understand and accept your own limitations.

You should also be open to editing your list as your circumstances change. Perhaps you visit a school and realize it just isn’t for you, or you learn of a program a different school offers that fits what you want to do exactly. Your college list should not be set in stone; making changes is acceptable, and even helpful at times.

That said, you should avoid making too many last-minute changes. The closer to deadlines you change your list, the more work you add to your plate. We suggest that you have a preliminary list by spring of your Junior year, and be done with college visits and edits by the fall. Of course, your own circumstances may change this, but we have found this works best for our students.

Final Thoughts

Deciding where to apply to college can be stressful, but it is also exciting. This is a new chapter in your life, and a new adventure to be had. While the college you attend does matter, it does not set your fate in stone. Going to a state school instead of Harvard does not doom you to mediocrity, and going to Yale instead of your local college does not guarantee your success. Schools matter in what they can give you, not in how famous their name is.

When building a college list, find the schools that are right for you, that will best support your personal goals and ambitions. If you want help finding these schools, building the perfect list, or help with any other aspect of college admissions, schedule a free consultation with us. We always enjoy helping students get into the college of their dreams.

5/5
Wendy Y.
Parent
Below is my son's review. He was accepted to his dream Ivy League school!

From an admitted student's perspective, I am incredibly grateful to have met Sasha - he has been instrumental in helping me achieve my educational dreams (Ivy League), all while being an absolute joy (he's a walking encyclopedia, only funnier!) to work with.

Many people are dissuaded from seeking a college counselor because they think they can get into their desired college(s) either way. Honestly, going that route is a bit short-sighted and can jeopardize your odds of acceptances after years of hard work. The sad truth is, the American education system (even if you attend a fancy private school and ESPECIALLY if you go to a public school) doesn't really tell students how to write a compelling and authentic application. Going into the admissions process alone, without speaking with an advisor, is like going to court without a lawyer - you put yourself at a significant disadvantage because you don't have all the facts in front of you, or the help you need to negotiate the system.

That said, you need a good lawyer just like you need a good college counselor. And that's where Sasha distinguishes himself from the crowd of people claiming they'll get you into Harvard. I came to Sasha worried about and frankly dumbfounded by the college admissions process. I was unsure what to write about and how to go about drafting the essay that perfectly captured my passion, interests, and self. And I was highly skeptical that anyone could really help me. But, damn, did Sasha prove me wrong. From the beginning, Sasha amazed me with his understanding of the process, and ability to lend clarity and direction to me when I desperate needed it. After interviewing me about my background, experiences, activities, outlook, and vision, he helped me see qualities about myself I had not previously considered 'unique' or 'stand-out.' This process of understanding myself was so incredibly important in laying the groundwork for the essays I eventually wrote, and I'm certain I would've drafted boring, inauthentic essays without it.

Looking back, Sasha's talent is that he can see where your strengths lie, even when you don't see them. The truth is, although we don't always realize it, everyone has a unique story to tell. Sasha helped me see mine, and with his big-picture insight I was able to write the application that truly encapsulated my life and vision. He inspired me to dig deeper and write better, challenging me to revise and revise until my essays were the most passionate and authentic work I had ever written. As clichéd as that sounds, that's really what universities are looking for. In retrospect, it makes sense - in the real world passionate (not simply intelligent) individuals are the ones who make a difference in the world, and those are the individuals colleges would like to have associated with their brand.

In the end, I was accepted to the college of my dreams, a feat I could not have achieved without the direction Sasha lent to me. Essays (and the personal narrative you develop through your application) matter so much, and can literally make or break your application. I have seen so many of my 'qualified' friends receive rejections because they wrote contrived essays that didn't truly represent who they were; conversely, I have also seen so many friends with shorter resumes accepted because they were able to articulate their story in a genuinely passionate and authentic way - I fall into the latter category.

As a former admissions officer at Johns Hopkins, Sasha knows what types of essays jibe well with universities, an invaluable asset to have in the admissions process. He is responsive, flexible, creative, positive, and witty. For anyone who is serious about going into the college admissions process informed and prepared, I highly recommend Sasha.
5/5
Arda E.
Student
I used Ivy Scholars to mainly help me with college applications. Within weeks of using this service, Sasha was able to simplify the already complex process. When it came to writing the Common App essay, Sasha didn’t just help with grammar and syntax, he brought my essays to life. Sasha also worked tirelessly to help solidify my extracurricular activities, including research and internship opportunities. Without his help, I would have never had an impressive resume.

Sasha is not only an extremely knowledgeable tutor, but also a genuine brother figure. His guidance, throughout my last two years of high school, was everything I needed to get me an acceptance letter from my dream schools (UC Berkeley, Tufts, Emory).

When it came to testing, Ivy Scholars worked like a charm. Sasha offered a very comprehensive plan when it came to completely acing my standardized tests. Without his test taking strategies I would have never gotten straight 5s on my AP tests and a 35 on the ACT.

Working with Sasha, I didn’t just become a good student, I became a genuine scholar.
5/5
Samson S.
Parent
We worked with Ivy Scholars during my son's senior year. I was concerned that we may be too late to take advantage of college advising but the Ivy Scholars team quickly and confidently directed us through the steps to ensure no deadlines were missed. Sasha's knowledge about schools, what they looked for in candidates, and how to maneuver the application process was invaluable. Mateo and Ryan worked with my son to help him create an essay that would get noticed and I am so appreciative he had their guidance.

Prior to securing Ivy Scholars, we tried using a less-expensive online service which was a terrible experience. As a parent, Ivy Scholars brought peace of mind to an area that was frankly overwhelming. This service was invaluable in the knowledge that we gained throughout the process. He has also met with my freshman daughter to provide guidance for her high school courses, career paths, extracurricular activities, and more.

Prior to signing with Ivy Scholars, I tried a less expensive online service and was very disappointed.

As a result of our work with Ivy Scholars, I am pleased to say that my son will be attending Stern Business School at New York University this fall! I highly recommend Ivy Scholars. Highly recommend!