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How to Build Your College List

You’ve barely finished wrapping up your junior year, and everyone and their mom won’t stop pestering you about college, specifically where you see yourself. Of course, you have your dream school and a couple of schools that you know reputation wise, but not really much more than that. Some schools are recommended by counselors and others are your family’s alma maters, but you don’t know if the college list you’re building is right for you.

College is a huge investment of time and money. Even the application process is an undertaking. To build a healthy college list that fits your requirements and is tailored specifically to you, you have to RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH!

We’re going to break down how to build a college list that is balanced and healthy to not only maximize your chances of admissions but ensure a happy college experience.

STEP 1: Knowing yourself, create a list of negotiable and non-negotiables

Before even looking at specific colleges and what they have to offer, create a list of negotiable and non-negotiable factors. Here are some things to consider:

  • Major: Does the school offer your major? Do they allow you to explore majors? Is it easy to switch between majors? Do they have a strong program in the major that you are interested in, or are they better known for a different major? If you don’t know what you are intending to major in, do they offer subjects and majors that you are interested in?

  • Location: Think about the weather and the area around the college–whether it’s located in an urban, suburban, or rural area, whether it’s near job or internship opportunities. Also, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, think about the distance from home. We’re all itching to get out of the house, but if you need to travel back and forth quite a bit to support your family, that’s a major factor that you have to consider.

  • Student Life: Does the school facilitate student life and culture? Do they offer various opportunities for students of different backgrounds, and majors to connect? Do they have school traditions and events? As much as numbers and stats are important in choosing a school, how you’ll fit at the school is even more important in order to have rich college experience.

  • Tuition: Money is often a limiting factor, but don’t let this deter you from putting private colleges on your college list. Just be realistic as you are building your college.

  • Student Population Size: This is something that not enough students seem to consider when building their college lists. Be mindful of the student to faculty ratio, and think about your learning style. Do you learn better in small groups with more one on one attention, or do you do better in large collaborative groups?

  • Extracurricular activities: Does the college offer clubs, organizations, extracurricular activities that are important to you? What about athletics and sports? Do you want to compete for the school or join intramural sports?

  • Other Requirements: If you are interested in double majoring, do they offer special programs that will cater to your interests? Do they offer honors programs?

Take your time to build your list of preferences. Make sure to be honest with yourself and what you want. During this time, you might get a lot of input from family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers! But ultimately, you’re the one who will be the attending so take ownership of your list.

STEP 2: Compile a list of 20-30 colleges

After you’ve established a list of preferences, you can start doing your research! The US News & World Report Best Colleges list is a great place to start looking at schools that are strong in your major. It’s okay if your list grows. You might even find yourself looking at schools that you’ve never heard of or are familiar with, but that’s the fun of research!

Even though researching the school’s statistics and how you measure up is important, prioritizing how you fit more than the numbers is also crucial in order to have a successful and fun college experience. We can’t stress this enough. You need to research things like student life and culture, school traditions, etc. So US News & World Report Best Colleges list is a great place to start, but don’t stop there! Research your school outside of official channels, such as YouTube, Reddit and other social media.

STEP 3: Narrow your list to 10-20 colleges

Now that you’ve compiled your initial list of colleges, it's time to dwindle it down to your top 10-20 colleges. We generally recommend applying to at least 10 colleges to maximize your chances of success, but of course, you can apply to more. It’s important as you are building your college list that you have a wide range of schools from “safeties” to “long shots” while still keeping in mind your list of preferences.

To narrow down your list, you need to compare what you learned in your research to what you prioritized on your list of preferences from Step 1. If a school doesn’t tick off all your boxes, don’t be afraid to put that school on the back burner. For example, if your school is in the right location and has extensive extracurricular activities, but doesn’t offer your major, you probably want to remove that school from your college list.

STEP 4: Balancing your college list

Once you’ve sized up your competition, you have to balance out your college list with safety, match, reach, and long-shot schools.

If you are building a list of 10 schools, we recommend having 1-2 Long Shots, 1-2 Reach, 4-6 Match, and 1-2 Safety.

Whether it's navigating life during the COVID-19 pandemic or the college admissions process, don’t be discouraged by the changing landscape. There’s always opportunity in change. We encourage you to stay positive, productive, and prepared as you embark on your college application process and to enjoy it! If you need someone to guide you through it step by step, contact us today for a free consultation. We can help you--from building a college to list to brainstorming and editing essays to filling out applications. For more, ask us about our Eureka College Packages and hourly services.


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