By Franca Rawitz
One of the first steps on the college journey is drafting a preliminary list of colleges to explore.
The earlier students begin thinking about schools, the easier it is to shape schools’ selection over time. The college list is like a piece of art — a work in progress — continuously modified as the artist (that is, you, the student) develops a stronger sense of what the finished piece should look like.
While some college counselors may help students draft their preliminary lists during junior year, it’s essential to complete this exercise whether or not this is the case. Pulling together a selection of schools that interest you is a great place to start your college search during your junior year.
Defining a Set of Criteria
Every person has a different set of criteria for their college list, but there are specific primary considerations to take into account.
Choosing a college location includes many different considerations, such as distance, weather, and type of environment. Think about how far from home you want to go, but also remember that being far away can entail individual costs in both time and money — will you be able to travel home over the breaks? Can you stay in the dorms during school breaks? If not, are there family members or friends near your prospective college you can stay with if going home often isn’t an option?
Also, consider how the local climate of a college may affect you. Are you looking for a warmer region or one that has a variety of seasons? If you are looking at a place that has different weather than where you grew up, you may need to acquire new clothes, which — while it may sound fun — is another potential expense to factor into your decision.
Ask yourself if you would prefer to be in a big city or at a school surrounded by nature. Depending on your preferences, there may be transportation costs or needs that you’ll have to take into account. Are you willing to be at a school where the campus is spread out, and you may need to drive or take public transportation to get to class? Again, think about the logistics and expenses that different types of transportation needs may entail.
The size of the school you select can have a significant impact on your college experience. For instance, large universities with 10,00–25,000+ undergraduates can offer incredible research opportunities and varied course offerings for students. But these schools may also have large classes and less involved support for students, with the expectation that students will advocate for themselves if they have questions or need extra help.
Schools with smaller student bodies (fewer than 8,000 students) can offer a lot of individualized attention and opportunities to interact with professors one-on-one. Smaller schools, however, tend to have more limited research and a narrower range of courses than their larger counterparts. Students at these institutions may also, at times, long for a wider social circle than is available on campus.
For students who know what they’d like to study, checking the list of majors and minors at prospective universities is essential. Many universities will have school-specific areas of study, such as business, education, communications, engineering, etc. If you don’t know what you’d like to study, opt for liberal arts colleges with several majors that pique your interest.
How do you envision your social life at college? Here are some factors you may want to consider:
- Politics: While some schools may have students and faculty with a range of political beliefs, other schools may be largely apolitical or predominantly liberal or conservative. Think about how important politics are to you and whether you prefer to attend a school that will challenge your belief system or one where you will find like-minded individuals.
- Religion: If religious life is important to you, make sure that you look for a school with a vibrant spiritual community that you can become a part of. You can also look at the religious life of the surrounding city or town.
- Sports: Is attending a school with a strong sports culture important to you? If you’re interested in a specific sport, be sure to check if your prospective colleges will allow you to play.
- Greek Life: At some schools, fraternity and sorority culture can be one of the main ways students socialize. Think about whether you are interested in becoming a part of Greek life or the role you want it to play in your general college experience.
- Extracurriculars: Joining clubs in college is a great way to meet people passionate about similar things. Whether you are interested in a capella, student government, or Dungeons & Dragons, check out the list of student organizations at the prospective colleges you are looking to get a sense of the range of activities students are involved in.
Your academic record will be the primary tool that admissions officers use when deciding whether to admit you to a particular college. They will look at your GPA, your current or future SAT or ACT scores, the kinds of classes you took in high school (that is, whether you took on challenging coursework like AP classes or the most challenging classes your high school offered), and your class rank if your school uses this metric.
Admissions officers look at these factors to determine if you will thrive in their academic environment, so consider these measures as you create a balanced list.
One way to gauge whether your academic record is a good fit for particular colleges is to look at their mid-range SAT/ACT scores, which are the 25–75th percentile range of standardized test scores for the incoming freshman class. If the scores you take on your practice tests are within this range, you will likely be a good academic fit. If, by contrast, your scores are at the lower end of the spectrum, you can consider this college a “reach” or a school that may be less likely to accept you. It’s crucial to balance your list with enough colleges where your scores are in line with the mid-range, as well as a few schools where you’re overqualified and others where your record is more vital than the average. For instance, if there are eight schools on your list, two could be “reaches,” four could be targets, and two could be schools you’re overqualified for.
Just as important as knowing what you want in a school is acknowledging what your deal-breakers are. Whether you’ve ruled out schools across the country or schools that don’t have a defined campus or used some other criteria, don’t let someone convince you to add a deal-breaker school to your list. While it’s helpful to keep an open mind as you begin your college search, if you’ve thought about it and your gut tells you to avoid a specific type of school, stick with your instinct.
Curating Your List
After creating an initial list of schools, you have to curate it by gathering more information about those colleges. Here are the next steps:
Visit the campuses.
One of the best ways to get a sense of a college is to walk around the campus, which is why students should start touring colleges as early as the fall of junior year.
Each visit becomes an education in itself. You’ll learn what feels right and what turns you off, and this will affect your list. After a visit, decide whether you want to delete it from your list, move it to a “top choice” position, or simply leave it on the list in the “I could be happy there, but I didn’t love it” position.
College visits take time and can be expensive, and if you live far away from the schools you’re interested in, it may be difficult to visit some of those on your list. If this is the case, you may be able to take a digital tour of campuses you are interested in. While some colleges offer these “visits” on their website, you can also use a service like YOUniversity TV to get a feel for campuses you can’t get to. Alternatively, many students wait until after receiving acceptance to visit some of the colleges on their list.
Speak to students.
Talking to students who have or currently attend the colleges you are interested in is essential. By asking questions about admissions, courses, and student life, you’ll get a more authentic sense of what it’s like to be a student there. Reach out to acquaintances who go to the prospective colleges you are interested in or strike up a conversation with students during your college visit — they’ll be happy to share what the school means (or doesn’t) to them. Some schools even offer high school students the opportunity to spend the night in a dorm when they come for their visit!
If you don’t know anyone in your immediate circle who attended the school you are interested in, there are still many ways to get in touch with current students and alumni. Use Facebook and LinkedIn to make connections or reach out to your prospective school’s admissions office or alumni association to ask for an introduction to current or former students.
Finalize your list.
College Board suggests that students keep their list between 5–8 schools. Including “safety” schools (colleges you are confident will admit you), “probable” schools (schools that you’d be happy attending and are likely to welcome you), and “reach” schools (top choices that are less likely to accept you).
Very often, students modify the list even as they complete applications. In the eleventh hour, a student may decide to apply to one or two schools that were not originally on her list. She may feel that she needs another “safety” or she wants to apply to one more “reach” school because her final SAT or ACT scores improved enough to widen the net.
One great way to keep track of your list and share it with friends, family members, and college counselors is using an online lists tool. As you explore colleges, you can save colleges to your list and edit it as you refine your criteria. You’ll find examples of lists below in the Student Voices section.
Keep track of admission deadlines.
By the fall of senior year, some students have already chosen a “top choice” school and wish to apply early, hoping that an early application will give them a slight admissions advantage. Early Decision is binding, meaning that if you are accepted, you must enroll in this college.
For students who aren’t ready to make this commitment, Early Action is a logical choice because it still gives them the benefit of an early application (and early notification) without being binding. Early applications should be completed first, and once submitted, students continue finishing up their Regular Decision applications.
Student Voices: The College List
Case 1: Jane
Jane drafted her preliminary list of schools looking at those in her academic range in the northeast and southeast because she didn’t want to be more than a three-hour plane ride from home. She used her scores from a practice ACT to estimate where she would fall within the different schools’ mid-range. Because she had no idea what size school would be best-suited, she visited a large university in the fall, followed by a mid-sized college a few months later. She soon realized that she could rule out large schools. She then narrowed her list to colleges with no more than 10,000 undergraduates.
Case 2: Ben
Ben was looking for a school with strong academics and an excellent reputation; he wasn’t interested in a niche liberal arts experience. He knew he wanted to pursue medical school, so he started by looking for schools with a strong science program. He further refined his list to schools with ample opportunities to grow musically since he had been involved in choir throughout high school.
Aside from his academic focus, Ben also knew he wanted a school that had a welcoming culture and would be able to offer generous financial aid.
As he began visiting colleges, he curated his list. When he visited Johns Hopkins, which was at the top of his list because of its excellent pre-med program, he felt the culture wasn’t a good fit. He decided to remove it after speaking to a family friend who had attended the school because he echoed Ben’s concerns. Ben also eliminated NYU from his original list because it couldn’t match his financial aid needs. Columbia, which had been near the middle of his list, moved to the top because he fell in love with the school’s culture when he visited. He realized too that he could participate in the joint degree program that would allow him to receive a second degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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