Creating a college list is akin to chiseling away at a piece of stone to create a sculpture. You don’t have to do it all once; you can chip away at it little by little and eventually – optimally by August before your senior year – you’ll have a strong, workable list that will lead you to your best buffet of options when decision day arrives.
If you haven’t read How to Find Your Best-Fit Colleges, you may want to start there. We give you a road map to finding your best-fit colleges and creating the first draft of your list, which should include approximately 15-20 schools. Now, let’s talk about how to narrow that down to your final list (note: don’t let ‘final’ scare you – your list can continue to change, and probably will, throughout the application process.)
The following steps will help you learn more about the colleges on your initial list so you can eliminate those that don’t fit and hone down to a balanced, strategic selection of approximately 8 to 12 schools that if admitted, you’d be delighted to attend.
1. Get Organized
Start by creating a spreadsheet or Google doc (or both!) to organize all the information about the colleges on your list. We love the idea of shareable files so your parents or college counselors can also add notes.
What goes in these files? Some suggestions would be school size, location, majors of interest to you, SAT/ACT and GPA requirements, social life, cost, and anything you can think of that’s important to you in your decision-making process. Later, once you’ve finalized your list, you’ll create a more detailed spreadsheet with each school’s requirements and deadlines. For now, it’s about compiling your information in one place so you can compare and contrast each school.
Make sure to leave yourself plenty of room for notes. As you begin the next steps of investigating and touring, the information can begin to overlap and blur. Record memorable details as you go!
2. Dig Deeper in Your Research
You’ve done some general research to get to this point. Now it’s time to dig in. The best place to begin, of course, is the college’s website. Spend some time there exploring more than the home page. Watch the videos, scroll through their clubs and organizations, read the online news articles. Then visit the school’s social media sites to get a feel for the issues and activities the school focuses on. Beyond that, these additional sites can shed light on more aspects of the college:
3. Visit Campuses
These days you can visit most universities without leaving home. Thanks to 2020’s events, “virtual visits” became a necessity and schools have upped their games in this department. Take advantage of every online opportunity you can, including student panels, faculty panels, info sessions, and campus tours.
Still, we think there is no substitute for an in-person visit (information session, campus tour, on-campus meal, and perhaps even attending a class) if your schedule and budget allow for it. Many students tell a similar story about visits: “When I stepped foot on that campus, I just knew it was where I belonged.” It’s the best way to really feel the campus “vibe” and know for sure if it’s for you or not.
Whether you visit virtually or in person, don’t forget to log your notes during or immediately afterward. Did you love the special pizza party nights they discussed? Were you turned off by the seriousness of the students? Could you imagine yourself hanging out with friends in the quad? Write down all of your thoughts. Those notes will come in handy later, too, when you’re writing your “Why this college?” essays. Read our Tips for College Campus Visits.
4. Talk to Students
Current or recently graduated students are some of your best resources for honest, relatable feedback that can help you determine if a college is right for you or not. On in-person campus tours, you’ll likely get a chance to interact with current students. Don’t be shy. This is a big decision for you so think of everything you’d want to know and ask away. Then listen to the answers objectively, understanding that everyone has a unique experience and this student may have different pros and cons than you. Talking to students can help you get the real-life picture of day-to-day campus life, including how difficult or easy classes are and how much interaction you can expect with faculty.
Again, talking with students is something you can do from home. Maybe a family member, friend, or neighbor knows a student you can connect with. Or you may find opportunities to speak with students through the website or by emailing your admissions officer at the college. You’d be surprised how many students are willing to FaceTime or Zoom with you and answer your questions. Or check out CollegeT, a website that facilitates (for a small fee) private conversations between current students and potential students.
5. Be Open to Suggestions
Yes, your goal is to narrow down your choices. But as you fine tune, you may also come across some colleges you hadn’t considered in your initial searches. In fact, as you find schools that you like, it’s a great idea to ask students there what other schools they applied to or considered. Or perhaps do a Google search for “schools similar to” that college. In addition, as you discover more about what you want in a college, teachers, counselors, and peers may have additional suggestions that are worth investigating. Keep asking questions, listening, and being open to new ideas that might arise.
6. Whittle it Down
As you research, you’ll undoubtedly eliminate some schools from your initial list. Your aim is to get down to about 8 to 12 schools at the most, with most being in your target range, meaning you fall somewhere in the middle of a college’s mid-50% GPA and SAT/ACT ranges for admitted students. You should also have several “likely” schools and a few of those “reach” schools you’d love to attend. If you’re struggling to weed out colleges, review your notes, prioritize your favorites, and when you’ve reached 8 to 10 put the rest on an overflow list that you can come back to if you want.
What we know from over 30 years of experience is that every college application and its accompanying admission essays take time and effort. With an effective list that you’ve created by finding your best-fit schools, researching, and touring, you’ll have less time stressing and more time to enjoy your senior year.
We can help you with your college list and every facet of the application process. Give us a call so we can guide you through all the steps.