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3 Qualities of a Great College List

By Scott, IvyWise Premier College Admissions Counselor

Building your college list is one of the most exciting parts of the admissions process. Although creating a college list can seem big and daunting, learning about yourself and where you’re going to thrive as a student and individual can be a lot of fun. But building a college list isn’t just about filling it up with “good schools.” Each college list should have three important qualities: fit, balance, and manageability.

Building a Balanced List

While academics are certainly paramount, there is a range of factors to consider when constructing your list of schools. Ultimately, you want a list of good-fit colleges that is balanced and manageable. You also want to take the time to thoroughly research schools in order to determine where they fall on your list and, in the end, demonstrate your informed interest in your application when it comes time to apply. Ideally, students should have their college lists at least somewhat solidified by the summer before their senior year, so that they have the opportunity to get a head start on their Common Application and school-specific supplements that are released by individual schools throughout the summer.

Let’s discuss each of these three qualities for a college list – fit, balance, and manageability – and why they’re important when building and finalizing your college list and deciding how many colleges you should apply to.


Fit is arguably one of the most important qualities when building your college list. What makes a particular school a good fit for you? You’ll want to think about the academics, extracurricular opportunities, and campus social life when determining fit. Are you someone who benefits from discussion groups, or do you learn better taking by notes in a lecture? Are you a great writer, or do you prefer hands-on projects? As you research the classes in your academic area of interest, these are the types of questions you should be asking yourself.

From there you should be considering if activities of interest are available and accessible to you. If you’re planning to study entrepreneurship, is there a society dedicated to helping students refine and launch startup ideas? Can you still play soccer at the club or intramural level? At the same time you’re also assessing whether social life revolves around a lifestyle that’s appealing to you: Is there a culture of activism if political and social issues interest you?

Fit is extremely important because this is where you’re going to spend the next four years of your life! You want to apply to schools where you’ll be successful and happy — and it’s very hard to enjoy your time in school if that university is not a good fit for you academically or socially. Of course, determining fit relies on a thoughtful process of research and reflection. You should visit campuses if you can, but there’s also a lot you can learn through university websites. Take your time to do thorough research on schools of interest to determine if they are good fits for you, and consult with your college counselor to identify additional colleges and universities that might be a good match for your needs and goals.


Now that you have a group of options where you know you’ll be able to accomplish your academic and other goals, you want to give yourself the best possible chance of getting in. Everyone finds it easy to determine his or her top choice colleges. Most often they’re the most prestigious schools students can think of with their dream campus and academic program. But these highly competitive schools are usually your reach schools, or schools where your academic profile is below that of the typical admitted student. It’s absolutely paramount that you research your options and find a number of schools where your profile is similar to that of the typical admitted student (target schools) and where your grades and test scores are better than those of the typical admitted student (likely schools.). If you create a list with just reach schools, you may find yourself in a situation where you are not accepted at all or only left with a few admissions offers to choose from.

It’s also important to consider how balance and fit intersect when building your college list. You can have a greatly balanced list, but if none of the schools are a good-fit for you, it will be difficult to not only apply since many schools include school-specific essays meant to gauge your informed interest and fit, but it will also make it very hard to actually be admitted and get excited about your college options if you do get in. Just like you don’t want a list too heavy on reaches, it’s also important to be mindful of the likely schools on your list. Don’t mindlessly add “fallback” schools to your list in order to achieve balance. Every school on your list — whether it’s a target, likely, or reach — should be a good fit for you.


Once you know you have a list of schools that are a fit and that is balanced, you need to be sure it’s manageable. This can be difficult, as the ease of the Common Application makes it possible for students to apply to up to 20 schools – not counting those institutions that use their own application system. There have been reports in the past of students applying to as many as 40, 50, 60 — even 100 colleges.

You want to produce the best quality applications possible, and having too many schools to apply to is only going to mean less time per application and diminished quality. A large college list doesn’t allow for proper research in order to determine fit, and with a very limited amount of time to actually complete the applications, it will be incredibly difficult to demonstrate your interest and fit to the school — ultimately diminishing your chances of admission. Ten to 15 schools on your list is generally enough to ensure manageability.

Building your college list should be fun and exciting. While determining where you want to apply, you should take the time to imagine yourself at your schools of interest and dream big about what you’ll accomplish. Remember, building your list is also a process of getting to know yourself. Above all you want to be honest with yourself and learn more about your interests, needs, and goals as you go along. Four years is a big investment, and you want to be sure you’re heading somewhere you’ll feel comfortable calling your school as well as your home. So, consider this the fun part of the admissions process and attack your research with excitement!

At IvyWise we work with students to help them build balanced and manageable lists of best-fit colleges as part of the college admissions process. If you need help building or refining your college list, or just need some guidance on how to approach the college admissions process this fall, contact us today for more information on our college counseling services.

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