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5 Things to Avoid When Building A Balanced College List

By Rachel, IvyWise Master College Admissions Counselor

The balanced college list is arguably one of the most important college prep tasks that students will complete within the college admissions process. The college list not only guides where students will apply, but it also factors into students’ application strategy – which can help maximize their admission chances to their top-choice schools. Building a balanced college list, however, is not as simple as creating a laundry list of familiar schools to which a student will apply. It requires a great amount of research, and there are many common mistakes that students make when creating their college lists – fortunately, these are easily avoidable!

Building a balanced list should ideally start sophomore year, as students begin researching colleges, going on casual visits to different types of campuses, and learning more about what they want from their college experience. At the start of junior year students should be doing extensive research on target, reach, and likely schools, as well as visiting a more honed list of schools. Ideally, students will have their college list almost finalized by the end of junior year, so that they can get started on their college applications during the summer before senior year.

Following this timeline and with proper planning and information, these common mistakes can be avoided:

Underestimating the Importance of Numbers
First, let’s talk about what your “numbers” are: GPA and test scores. At the most selective universities in the US, for students whose “numbers” fall outside of the parameters of what the admissions committee is looking for, it’s almost impossible to be admitted. These schools have so many qualified applicants, they must start by eliminating the applications that don’t meet their numbers. So, as you are honing your college list, take a look at the middle 50% or test score averages of admitted students. Where your numbers fall will help to guide which schools are reaches, targets, and likelies for you and you should have several choices in each category.

Disregarding Schools You Haven’t Heard Of
Did you know there are over 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the US alone? Getting swept up in “name brand” schools can be all too easy. You’re limiting yourself if you only apply to a short list of familiar schools. You need to expand your search, using the criteria that are important to your own academic and extracurricular interests to find schools that align. Own this part of the search! Your destination and how you get there is yours to define. Casting a wide net as you start your search will mean your ultimate list is a reflection of you, not just schools you heard of during March Madness.

Don’t rely on “Best College” lists alone. Consulting the rankings can certainly help as you begin your research but you need to create your own rankings of the things that will be important to you in your college experience. Once you find a school that has that personal fit, look up schools similar to it. Another great starting point, and lesser known than those in typical Top 50 lists are the Colleges That Change Lives. Here you will find schools that offer, in their own ways, a transformative and personalized student experience.

Just Following The Crowd
Applying to the same schools as your friends has the same pitfalls as never reaching beyond a school you’ve heard of – and more! Did you know that many colleges read applications in school groups? That’s right, you may be evaluated alongside of your friends and classmates. While that doesn’t mean you’re all the same, or that you won’t get in if the valedictorian is also applying, it does mean that if you’re in the middle of the pack in a school group of 30, you probably have less of a chance of being admitted. So, if you can, branch out. Be the lone kid from your school in Wisconsin to apply to Rice in Texas. Of course, don’t let this be the only factor guiding your college search. Just make sure you’re applying to schools for the right reasons and not just because your friends are doing it. Create a school list that’s right for you, not just one that’s trendy.

Assuming Majors Are the Same at Every School
While your major doesn’t need to be set in stone while you’re researching schools, looking at each school’s offerings and how they relate to your areas of interest will help you get a sense of what unique programs are available. For example, almost every college and university in the country offers psychology as a major. However, the opportunities you have to learn about your topic of choice within the field will vary from school to school. Investigating what it means to be a psych major could have a big impact on which schools rise to the top of your list.

Are you interested in a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology or a Bachelor of Science? At UCLA, students have a choice of three undergraduate majors: Psychology (B.A.), Cognitive Science (B.S.) and Psychobiology (B.S.) How do they differ? Typically, a B.S. will require more math and science courses. While much of the information covered is similar, each option stands to meet different needs and interests of the students who enroll.

Many schools offer specifics within a psych major, as well as campus-wide programs that could be of particular interest. For students interested in the mental health component of psychology, for example, the University of Wisconsin Madison has The Center for Healthy Minds, which is independent of the psychology department. This center and its research could be an exciting place to start a career in understanding the mind, alongside studying it in the classroom. On the other hand, Haverford College has devoted a number of labs to research in various sub-disciplines of psychological research including a lab with a 40-channel Neuroscan EEG/ERP system for studying human psychophysiology or facilities for conducting observational research with stress physiology equipment.

Looking into what each school offers and becoming familiar enough with the standard offerings to spot something different will help you find programs that can truly meet your needs and interests.

Missing Out on Early Action
Early Action and Early Decision are options for students who are particularly interested in a school and allow the students to apply earlier (usually November and December) in the process. The difference between the two is that Early Action is non-binding, while Early Decision is, meaning if a student is admitted during Early Decision, they are obligated to attend. When building their college lists, students often don’t take these application options into consideration, which can hurt their application strategy come time to apply.

So, even if you’re not ready to commit to a school in November, or financial aid reasons are keeping you from doing so, there’s no reason to miss EA opportunities. Do your research and see how you compare to the early applicant pool at your top-choice colleges, and talk with your college counselor about how these application options can affect how you rate a college on your list as a target, reach, or likely. Applying in the early round can have a number of benefits, like learning your admission decision sooner and having better admission odds; acceptance rates in ED/EA are often twice that of regular decision! However, the early applicant pool is typically more competitive. While the application pool is smaller, it is made up of students who have already done the work. Their grades in junior year were top-notch, they’ve finished their testing, and they’ve completed their essays and the Common Application. Additionally, ED/EA at every school is not the same, so do your research. Applying early to right school(s) is often the foundation of a smart application strategy.

Building your balanced college list is a process that can’t be done in one night – or even one week! Students need to be diligent about researching, visiting, and evaluating what matters most to them when it comes to their academic and personal goals.

At IvyWise, our team of expert counselors work with students to help them build and refine their balanced college lists, often helping students identify best-fit institutions that they may have never considered before. The IvyWise Roundtable process also gives students the benefit of the entire team’s expertise, as they evaluate students’ applications and profiles to simulate the admissions committee review process and give extensive feedback on students’ chances of admission to the schools on their list. For more information on how IvyWise can help you build a balanced college list, and maximize your chances of admission to those top-choice schools, contact us today.