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Tips for Creating a College List as a Younger Student

By Carolyn, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

If you are a high school 9th or 10th grader reading this article, chances are you are very excited about starting the college process. If that is the case, give yourself a big pat on the back for being proactive! Keep in mind, however, that the college search process will look different for underclassmen than it might for juniors and seniors.

In this article, we will share some tips on how to jumpstart your college list without getting too ahead of yourself or overwhelmed.

How soon is too soon to start building my college list?

It is absolutely okay to begin looking into colleges as early as 9th grade. The more you learn about your options, the more motivated you will be to excel in school and your extracurricular activities, and the more intellectually prepared you will be to navigate college admissions and make important decisions when the time comes.

That being said, there are still a lot of factors of the list-building process that you are not yet sure of. For example, you don’t know what your final GPA or test scores will be, though you may have a general estimate or goal to help guide you. Moreover, there’s a strong chance that you will change your mind at least once over the next few years about what you want to study, the type of college you want to attend, and what you hope to accomplish in college and beyond.

Because of these many variable factors, your early college research should be geared more towards exploration than decision-making. In other words, use these early years to learn more about the types of college options available to you, how each of them could help you achieve your goals in different ways, and which characteristics most align with your preferences and priorities.

What am I looking for in a college experience?

Before looking at any specific colleges, I always recommend starting with some self-reflection on the school characteristics that are most important to you. Of course, some factors – like graduation rate, financial support, and quality of academic programs – will be important to everyone, but others will be dictated more by your own preferences than by objective standards.

For example, do you want to attend a large university or a small liberal arts college? Would you prefer your school to be in the middle of a bustling city or a quaint rural town? Are you interested in a college that serves a specific population of students, such as an HCBU or a religiously affiliated institution? Do you want to stay close to home or explore a new area?

Keep in mind that your preferences may change over time, but these initial reflections can help you identify a more specific and actionable starting point and ensure you are looking only at schools that are the best fit for you.

What other opinions and priorities do I need to consider?

Let’s be clear, your college admissions experience belongs to you, and you should be personally driving both the thought and the work that goes into making these decisions. However, you likely have several people in your life that are there to support you, and you should take advantage of these resources.

Particularly if your parents will be contributing financially to your college education, now is a great time to talk to them about any preferences or deal-breakers that are important to them. (Trust me when I tell you that this conversation will be much easier in April of 9th grade than it would be in April of your senior year.) Your school or college counselor is also likely a great source of information and experience that you can lean on if you’re not sure where to start.

How do I learn more about the colleges that fit my criteria?

Once you have a draft list of the characteristics you’re looking for in a college, now it’s time to go out in the world and pressure test those preferences. Register for virtual or in-person college tours at some schools that fit your selected criteria. Explore their websites and follow their social media accounts. Apply for on-campus summer programs and speak to admissions representatives at college fairs.

Don’t forget to take notes about everything you learn along the way. You may not remember a year from now how welcome you felt walking into X University’s dorm for first-year students, or which college offered that interdisciplinary major you liked so much, so a written record will come in handy when it comes time to make decisions.

What if I change my mind?

As you make these visits and learn more about your options, and as you grow and evolve throughout your high school career, you absolutely will change your mind at least once about what you want in a college experience. That’s okay – nay, that’s great because it means you’re making progress and honoring your growth.

When that happens, try not to get frustrated, but simply adjust your criteria and begin looking into other college options that fit the experience you are now interested in. The great thing about starting early is that you have plenty of time to make changes and still be completely prepared for the admissions process. Think of it like planning for Thanksgiving dinner; you will definitely want to plan ahead, search online for different recipe options, and talk to your guests about what they want, but you can change your mind about anything and everything until the moment you walk into the grocery store to buy your ingredients.

Above all things, make sure that you are having fun and enjoying the experience of researching your college options. Every school you look into is a different version of your potential future, and as long as you stay focused and work hard, each and every one of them will lead you to happiness and success.

At IvyWise, we work with students to help them identify and apply to a balanced list of best-fit colleges where they’ll be happy and thrive. There are many schools where students can be successful, and our expert counselors will help you find the schools that are the best fit for your interests and goals. For more information on how we can help you navigate the college admissions process, contact us today.


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