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Evaluating School Fit to Build Your Balanced College List

By Kayon, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

As more and more people start to ask you about your college plans (while subtly suggesting you apply to their alma mater) you may start to feel a little anxious about tackling your school list. This is completely normal! And some guidance on how to determine what’s a good-fit for you (Aunt Sally’s alma mater or not) can help ease some of that pressure and set you up for success.

Deciding where you will apply and creating a balanced list is an important step and, if done well, can possibly yield a wide array of acceptance. There are many things to consider when putting together your school list but one element I want to focus on is the idea of “fit.”

How Do You Gauge Fit?

If you have crafted a balanced and thoughtful school list and thought carefully about which institutions will be a good fit, you should be excited to attend any school to which you apply. Fit is an all-encompassing term that focuses on how well suited each institution is to that student’s specific needs. Fit can entail any criteria: academics, finances, social life, geography, etc. So, the question here is how do you determine where is the best fit for you? This requires some introspection. Hopefully, you and your counselor have been talking about it, but this is ultimately your decision so it must be driven by what you want.

However, you are not going to make the decision about what elements of a college experience are most important to you in a vacuum. You should do the work to figure out what you personally want so you can have some clarity around what fit feels like to you, but during this entire process you’ll have a support system.

Talk to Your Parents

Your parents are a great resource and your biggest fans! They know who you are and most likely will be helping to make college a reality. So, they should be your first stop. What decision makes the best sense for the family? Are you trying to maximize finance, geography, etc.? Having input from your parents may help to clarify which factors are most important to the family as a whole.

Talk to Your Counselors

Your counselors will work with you throughout the process. They will help you through every step and are entirely on your side. Use them as a sounding board. They have been through the process themselves and have some additional perspectives on what life on campus is really like

Talk to Friends

This conversation will have different perspectives represented as your friends may value different things, but they are currently going through the process right alongside you and can most closely relate. There is comfort in having someone in the same boat rowing with you.


You’re going to spend the next four years there, so it’s important to visit in person when you can. Register for the tour and information session so the admissions office has a record of your visit and you’re able to get your questions answered directly by the admissions staff. Can’t physically visit campus? Register for a virtual tour and information session instead. Visiting is an important part of determining fit – whether it’s in person or virtual.

Putting it Together 

Now you’ve had all the conversations and you’re clear about what you want next fall, you may think:

“I would love to attend a university with a strong Mechanical Engineering program with a pipeline to a good graduate program in that field. In order to help me succeed in my graduate program, I also want access to early and abundant opportunities for research. I’d love to watch our football team on the weekends and want that sports culture. As an added perk I want my university to be close to my grandma’s house because she makes the best lasagna.”

Okay we know what factors are important so let’s whip up a spreadsheet.

Start by casting a wide net and be open to as many schools as possible. I promise there are more than eight schools in the US. We can always factor in external things like prestige but remember you want to set yourself up to thrive and be happy at your chosen institution, so be open to the many forms that can take.

You have your spreadsheet in hand, now it’s time to have some fun with the process. You’ll utilize all your resources: the internet, college guides, school visits, college fairs, and on-campus visits to identify all the amazing opportunities each school may provide. Maybe you create a scoring/rank system to put some numbers to the facts. In this example, I scored each school on a scale of 1-5.

Academics Research Geography Culture
School X 5 4 1 4
School Y 4 4 5 3
School Z 3 5 3 2

For those who love numbers and a good list, it might clarify which features of each school best fit what you’re looking for. After you have completed your list, take a look at the results. You should aim to have a list of 8-10 schools on your final list.

As a student who has worked hard and found success in high school, you are poised to do the same in college. Enjoy the process! There are multiple paths you can take, but no “wrong” answers necessarily. Be thoughtful about your next step, but also try to have some fun along the way. You’ve got this!

At IvyWise, we know that building a balanced college list can be exciting – but also overwhelming with so many options. Our team of expert counselors can help you craft the perfect balanced college list of best-fit schools – ensuring you end up with a plethora of choices come decision time. For more information on how we can help you through every step of the college admissions process, contact us today.

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