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Criteria for a Strong College List

Student sits on the steps outside his high school while contemplating his college application list

By Carolyn, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

Welcome to the first real, concrete step you will take toward deciding which college you will call home for the next few years of your life! The process of building your college application list should begin in the fall or spring of your junior year, though you may have begun visiting schools, attending events, and reflecting on your preferences before then. Your goal is to have a strong list of schools you plan to apply to by early fall of your senior year, ideally before the school year begins. We will talk through the criteria for a strong college list and identify some of the factors you will want to consider when researching and selecting schools.

Believe it or not, building a strong college list is much more than just finding a handful of schools you like enough to see yourself attending. You will want to consider several factors as you choose your top colleges, and the overall strength of your list will have a significant impact on how smoothly the application process will go. In fact, you might even say that the list of colleges you apply to is just as important as the quality of your applications in ensuring you have a variety of options in front of you. To set yourself up for success in the application process, your final college list should fit the criteria highlighted below.

Identify Your Search Factors 

The first — and arguably most important — step in the process of building your college list is identifying a set of search factors you will use to narrow down the nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. to the handful of schools you are most interested in attending. Identifying your priority factors before you begin looking into specific schools will ensure you are working toward a list of colleges that fit your wants and needs, and not a list of colleges with the most effective marketing strategies. Although college admissions offices are willing and able to support you in the application process, they are also tasked with “selling” their school to prospective students, and they are very good at convincing students that what they want in a college just happens to be exactly what their college is offering.

Universal Factors: The first set of search factors you will want to consider are those concrete, objective characteristics of a college that are important to everyone. These factors include any information that shows you are academically and financially qualified to be admitted to and successful at the school in question. Specific data points to look for include graduation rates, financial aid policies, and average test scores or GPAs for accepted students.

Personal Factors: While all prospective high school students will (or at least should) take into consideration the universal factors highlighted here, the bulk of the research and selection you will do as you build your list will be focused on your personal factors: the characteristics of a college you specifically are looking for that will make your future college a strong personal fit. Factors to consider here might include the school’s location, setting, student body, academic programs, support services, extracurricular offerings, and anything else that will be important to your college experience and success.

Try to avoid cosmetic factors like the quality of the dorms and dining halls. These can serve as perfectly fine tiebreakers between two or more strong-fit schools, but the focus of your initial search should be on the traits that will be most meaningful to your happiness and success in college.

Stakeholder Factors: While finding a strong college fit means focusing primarily on what is important to you, chances are there are other people in your life — such as your parents or your college counselor — who will also have opinions about what you should look for in a school. These factors should be noted and considered alongside your own preferences, assuming the people in question know you or the college search process well, have a personal or financial stake in your decision, and want only the best for you and your future.

Aim to Apply to 10-15 Colleges  

This is a very general suggestion, and there are certainly exceptions in either direction depending on your academic profile and the options available to you. The key is to apply to enough schools that you have multiple options to choose from on Decision Day, but not so many that you are overwhelmed by the amount of work it would take to submit the applications.

Choose Schools That Fit All Your Highest and Most of Your Lower Priority Search Factors  

This will ensure that your chosen college will be a strong fit for you academically, personally, and financially, which will greatly increase your chances of persistence and success, as well as your chances of enjoying the college experience. It may also include some “stakeholder” factors, or the school characteristics that matter the most to the people in your life (like parents or counselors) who will have a direct impact on your decision.

Select a Roughly Equal Number of Likely, Target, and Reach Schools

Likely (or “safety”) schools are colleges where the admitted student averages (ACT/SAT scores and GPA) are a few points lower than your own or schools with open admissions policies (like community colleges and technical schools). Reach schools are colleges with averages a few points higher than your own. Target schools refer to colleges with numbers relatively comparable to yours. Having a balance between these categories means you are pushing yourself to be ambitious without risking a scenario in which you have no feasible options.

Building your college list can be an overwhelming — though hopefully exciting — process. As always, IvyWise counselors are here to help you and your family navigate building a balanced college list from start to finish, providing expertise and personal guidance along the way. Contact us to schedule an Initial Consultation today!

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