5 Ways to Narrow Down Your College List

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Student writing college admissions thank you notesFinalizing your list of best-fit schools is one of the most important steps of the college application process. Between writing supplemental essays, finalizing personal statements, and requesting letters of recommendation, there’s a lot that students need to prioritize – and often, they put off the difficult task of narrowing down their long list of best-fit schools. Keep reading to learn more about what you should keep top of mind so that you can narrow down your college list and stay ahead of the game on all of your applications.

How many schools should you add to your college list?

Although there isn’t one magic number of schools that all students should aim to apply to, there is a range that will likely work well for many applicants. Here at IvyWise, our admissions counselors frequently recommend that students consider applying to a balanced list of 12-15 colleges. Avoid focusing only on “name brand” schools — such as Ivy League colleges — and instead prioritize the choices that most closely align with your needs and goals.

Keep in mind that many colleges will require their own set of supplemental essays, and you will be expected to create a compelling application for each school on your college list. The best applications are tailored to each school and reflect a students’ research and commitment to a specific college. These essays and short answer questions can add up quickly, and even if you get an early start on your admissions process, it will be challenging to compile personalized and thoughtful applications for 15 schools or more. To avoid feeling overwhelmed and ensure you meet your application deadlines, it can be advantageous to narrow your focus to a smaller range of schools that you are truly passionate about.

Target, Reach, and Likely Schools 

Your college list shouldn’t just be a collection of schools that you like. You need to be strategic about where you apply, and that means having a realistic idea of your applicant profile and your chances of admission. If you have a 3.6 GPA, but you’re applying only to colleges with admit rates of less than 10%, your chances of admission will be very low because you’re competing against tens of thousands of other applicants with perfect grades and test scores. This is where the idea of “reach,” “target,” and “likely” colleges come in.

  • “Likely” schools: student’s academic profile is significantly stronger than the middle 50 percent of students who are typically admitted.
  • “Target” schools: student’s academic profile is similar to that middle 50 percent.
  • “Reach” schools: student’s academic profile is not as strong as the middle 50 percent.

You can find information on median grades and test scores on university websites in order to gauge where your academic profile falls in relation to previously admitted students.

As you’re categorizing schools as reaches, targets, and likelies, there’s also a fourth bucket of colleges that you’ll want to avoid: fallbacks. When creating your balanced college list, every school you choose to apply to should feel like a first choice. Now, we know that might not be realistic as it’s normal for students to have one or two schools that are their top picks. However, students also tend to add “fallback” schools, or schools that they’re really not that in love with but they think they’ll definitely get in as a “backup” should their other college plans fall through.

This is NOT a good strategy, as every school you apply to should be one that you’re excited to attend. Say you don’t get in anywhere else and all that’s left is the school you added at the last minute that you don’t know much about? This can lead to an unfavorable college experience. Don’t add a school to your list just to have a “backup.” Instead, treat every college you apply to as your first-choice.

What can students do to make the most of their research process?

Building your balanced college list is one of the most important steps in the application process. As students do their research, here are a few steps prospective applicants can take to help them learn as much about each school as possible:

Weigh All of Your Options

There are more than 3,000 four-year institutions in the US, but all too often students have their sights set on the same list of 10 or so “name brand” schools. Instead of fixating on how well-known or prestigious a particular college is, it’s important to dig deep and determine which schools are really the best-fit for your individual needs and goals. Begin by identifying some of the factors that might matter most to you during your college search, such as the campus feel/setting or the majors and specializations a school is known for. Ask yourself questions about your ideal class size, student-to-faculty ratio, and what kinds of research or extracurricular opportunities are important to you and your goals.

Let these priorities lead your college admissions search, as opposed to focusing on the colleges that you’ve heard the most about. There are so many amazing options, so take the time to weigh all of your choices before narrowing down your list.

Begin drafting your “Why this college” essay

After going through your research, begin outlining a “why this college” essay for each of the schools still on your list. Since many colleges and universities ask “Why do you want to go to XYZ University?” in their supplements, this will give you a head start. It’s also a way to really delve into the details. If you start an outline and begin to struggle to think about “why this school” halfway through, it may not be the best fit. Take some time to consider it.

Start with virtual visits

Many colleges have introduced virtual tours to give students the opportunity to get a feel for their campus without actually traveling. Virtual college tours can help students demonstrate their interest in a specific school, especially if you also sign up for a virtual information session. Information sessions are normally led by an admissions officer or Dean of Admissions and cover topics such as essay writing, the admissions process, and financial aid. There is usually an opportunity for questions after, or the admissions officer will sometimes give out their contact information so you can follow up with questions after the session.

Consider in-person tours to level up your school-specific knowledge 

Virtual visits are an excellent starting point, but what should students do if they want to learn even more about a college on their best-fit list? After taking a hiatus for several years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most campuses are now open again for in-person visits. Make sure to check the website for each school you’re interested in visiting to learn more about campus-specific protocols and to sign up for a tour so that you can show your demonstrated interest

5 Questions to ask yourself as you finalize your college list

To feel confident in your selections, prospective applicants should have the answers to a series of questions about each school on their best-fit list. Here are the queries you should ask when finalizing your college application decisions:

Where do I stand compared to other applicants?

It’s important to be realistic about your admissions odds. To compile a balanced college list, students should have a range of schools that include reaches, targets, and likelies. If you’re not sure where a prospective college falls on this spectrum, do some research to get a better idea of what a typical applicant pool looks like. Most schools publish statistics about their incoming class – such as median SAT/ACT scores and the average GPA of accepted students – in Common Data Sets available on their websites or in their class profiles. Compare your own grades and scores with these statistics to learn more about a college’s academic profile and what you should aim for in order to be competitive. 

What courses/majors am I interested in pursuing?

College is a valuable opportunity to deepen your expertise in the fields you are most passionate about. Top applicants will enter the application process with well-honed interests and passions that they can build upon throughout their college career. Make sure you have an in-depth understanding of the courses, programs, and majors that each prospective college offers and pinpoint which opportunities align with your interests. Take it a step further by researching course offerings to learn more about specific classes you may wish to take and the professors who teach them.

What kind of campus environment can I expect? 

Every student has their own vision of what they’re looking for in a college environment. Some may seek out a more rural atmosphere and tight-knit campus feel while other students may be eager to get their start in a big city. There’s no one-size-fits-all best option, but there is the best choice for your needs and goals. If you’re not sure what type of environment you prefer, strive to take a few tours (either in-person or virtually) of different types of campuses to get a sense of what you gravitate towards.

What types of extracurricular activities will be on my radar? 

In addition to attending courses and studying for finals, how do you hope to spend your time in college? Whether it’s playing on a varsity sports team or writing for the campus newspaper, reflect on the types of activities that you prioritize and make sure each of your prospective colleges offers related opportunities. Many colleges publish lists of their clubs, sports teams, and other extracurricular opportunities, so do your research to learn what’s available.

Is this school a good financial fit? 

There are many factors that go into every college decision and for most students, financial aid will play a role in their choices. Make sure to explore what kinds of financial aid offerings are available for each school on your prospective best-fit list. Consider checking out the net price calculator on each college’s website to get a better picture of what your family might be expected to pay. If you have any questions, reach out to the college’s financial aid office for more personalized information. 

Take your college search to the next level with personalized guidance 

While creating a balanced list of best-fit colleges might feel overwhelming at first, it will become more manageable if you begin your research process early and give yourself plenty of time to weigh all of your options. If you’re getting ready to apply to college and are looking for personalized guidance, our team of college admissions can point you in the right direction.


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