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  • Jill Madenberg

Tips For Making Your College List

After visiting a few college campuses, try to identify five key characteristics that you absolutely must have or don’t want in your ideal school. It may be important to you that the dining hall have delicious food, or that the professors are available and accessible to students. Maybe you only want to consider schools a few hours away from home or institutions with strong Engineering programs. The “must-haves,” as I call them, can be as serious or as silly as you want - absolutely anything that will make college the right match for you. Identifying these “must-haves” ensures that your college list will be made up of only schools that fit your criteria. If a school does not have even one of your designated characteristics, think twice before including it on your final list. There are too many amazing institutions out there to settle on one you do not love.

Here are some factors to consider when you are making your college list:

  • Start big and narrow it down. Even as late as June of eleventh grade, my daughter Amanda had 40 schools on her list and did not want to part with any of them. Because I wanted to make sure that she had enough Likely schools on her list, every time Amanda loved a school that was a Target or a Reach, I insisted that we add a Likely.

  • Geographic location. How close to home do you want to be? Often, parents will put limits on how far their child can go for college, and they should express these preferences to their children prior to application season.

  • Size of the college and professor/student ratio. How big do you want your classes to be? Is it important to you to develop strong relationships with teachers?

  • Do you want to attend school in a locale with a particular type of weather/climate? Have you always wanted to a live in a certain region of the country?

  • If you attended a public high school, is it okay if a lot of students at your college come from private schools?

  • Finances will certainly come into play, but if you are a relatively good student, please do not turn away from a school simply because of a scary sticker price. Despite the prices colleges report online and in books, most students do not actually pay the entirety of what dollar amount is reported. I have had students receive free rides, half tuition, and many other deals; you won’t know how much money a college will offer you unless you apply. This is another conversation parents and students should have before fall of senior year. Parents (or whoever is paying for college) should make their financial intentions clear to their children.

  • Try to consider at least one or two Colleges That Change Lives. These colleges are dedicated to the advancement and support of a student-centered college search process . While there are dozens of other colleges that change lives, the ones in this specific consortium meet the founder’s ideals and want students to search for the right fit beyond ratings and rankings. If the colleges in the consortium include your “must-haves,” push yourself to research these schools a little extra carefully. Students report incredible experiences and meaningful degrees from these places.

  • Read through books or websites that list all college majors and make a list of those that may interest you to organize your college search and plan visits. The College Board Index of Majors and Barron’s Profile of American Colleges both include indexes organized by majors.

  • Ideally, your final list should include about 12 schools: four Likelies, four Target schools, and four Reach schools. If you are worried, you can always add a Likely. However, for every Reach school on your list, I strongly recommend you have at least one Likely school to balance it out. It is fine to have more Likelies and Targets than Reaches, but not the other way around. In order for a college to be in the Likely category, you need to make absolutely sure that you are comfortably above the school’s ranges for both GPA and standardized test scores. Falling in the middle of a school’s range means that it is a Target school, and not a Likely—they are two different categories.

  • When you find and visit a college that you love, ask current students what specifically drew them to the school and where else they applied. Also ask how they eventually decided on the final school. This is a great way to get ideas of other schools that likely have a lot in common with the one you like, and may even help make your final choice.

Here are some tools you can use to assist you in making a list:








  • National Survey of Student Engagement - NSSE developed a FREE pocket guide to help students choose a college.

  • Naviance. I really like to use Naviance’s scattergram function. Keep in mind that your high school must have an account with Naviance in order to gain access to the information about students in your school.

Note that you do NOT have to apply (and probably should not apply) to the same schools as your friends. In fact, you might feel a whole lot less nervous if you applied to several colleges that don’t usually receive applications from people in your high school. Colleges try to create diversity by accepting students from all over the country and the world, so you only help yourself when you distinguish and differentiate yourself from students within your own high school. And with thousands of college options, I always recommend expanding your horizons if that is something available to you financially.

Remember that you are selecting a handful of colleges from literally thousands—don’t settle.

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