How to Build a College List

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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.

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Wendy Y.
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