The initial step in the arduous college application journey is identifying the appropriate colleges to apply to, a task that can be challenging and overwhelming due to the increasing competitiveness and unpredictability of college admissions, as well as the multitude of educational institutions in the United States. These considerations often leave students with several questions such as: “What is the optimal number of colleges to apply to?” “How many Reach, Target, and Safety schools should I target?” “What criteria should I keep in mind when making my list?” “Where can I find information to guide me?”
To assist students in navigating this complex process, this article offers a comprehensive guide to help you create your college list from beginning to end. We will provide answers to the questions above, and provide you with the information you need to make informed decisions and find the right schools for you.
Factors to Consider
When developing your college list, it is crucial to understand the key elements that are of utmost significance to you. These factors can encompass a wide range of considerations, such as location, size, academic programs, professional preparation, opportunities for studying abroad, extracurricular activities, cost, prestige, campus environment, and post-graduation career prospects. While all of these elements can have an impact on your college experience, some may carry more weight for you than others.
Thus, it is vital to assess what truly matters to you and what you aspire to gain from your college experience. The following questions will help you create a list of colleges that align with your values, priorities, and goals.
Location: Consider your preferred geography, whether it is close to home, in a new city or state, in a college town, or in a metropolitan area, as well as the weather.
Size: Decide on the ideal size of the university, whether it is a large, vibrant campus or a smaller, more intimate setting, and whether you prefer a comprehensive university or a liberal arts college.
Major Offerings: Ensure that the college offers the academic programs and minors that you wish to pursue.
Extracurricular Activities: Evaluate the availability of clubs, sports, and other activities that align with your interests and hobbies.
Pre-professional Preparation: If you plan to pursue medicine, law or another professional field, assess whether the college has a strong pre-professional program in that area.
Study Abroad: If you are interested in studying abroad, consider whether the college offers programs in locations that interest you.
Cost: Evaluate the cost of tuition, fees, and the availability of financial aid and scholarships.
Reputation: Consider the importance of the college's reputation or ranking, both overall and in the academic majors you wish to pursue.
Campus Culture: Assess the importance of the campus culture, atmosphere, diversity, resources, and support services for students.
Career Prospects: Determine the value of a college's track record in helping undergraduate students secure internships and employment after graduation.
With the important factors in mind, the next step is to gather information about the colleges on your list. Start by researching 20 to 30 schools that align with your priorities and interests, then narrow down your list to a manageable number (typically 10-15), taking into consideration your academic and extracurricular profile, as well as your goals. An excellent place to come up with the initial list is by utilizing college search websites and databases. Some popular websites include CollegeBoard, CollegeNavigator, and Niche.
Additionally, if your high school subscribes to Naviance, you can access historical acceptance data for students from your school at specific colleges, as well as their GPA and test scores. This information can be extremely helpful in giving you a more comprehensive understanding of your chances of being accepted at a particular college in the context of your high school. If your school does not have access to Naviance, ask your high school counselor for information about the average GPA and test scores of students from your school who have been admitted to that college, as well as offer guidance on your chances of being accepted.
The college’s website is a valuable resource, providing information on academic programs, faculty and course offerings, campus life, and facilities. Be sure to carefully review the admission requirements, which typically include GPA, test scores, and any specific application materials that may be required. You can usually find admissions statistics under the “freshman profile” section on the college’s website, or by searching for “college name + freshman profile” on Google. This information can give you a better understanding of the competitiveness of the college and your chances of being accepted.
Most students also need to factor in college costs, such as tuition fees and financial aid options. You can get a rough estimate of the cost of attending a specific college by using the net price calculator at https://collegecost.ed.gov/net-price. Additionally, it is important to check the college’s website for information on financial aid and scholarship opportunities. This can help you get a better understanding of what you can expect in terms of the financial commitment involved in attending that college.
Do not hesitate to reach out to college representatives for more information about the college and to gain a deeper understanding of its culture and resources. Sign up for informational sessions, as all colleges offer general admission sessions, and some even offer major-specific webinars. If possible, visit the college to experience the campus and meet current students, faculty, and staff. If the college is not within driving distance, take advantage of virtual tours, which many colleges now offer due to the pandemic.
Lastly, reach out to current students, alumni, and faculty to gain a firsthand perspective on the college experience. Read college guides and review books, which provide valuable information and insights into each college, to get a better understanding of what it is like to attend a particular institution.
Reach, Target, and Safety
We recommend having a balanced list of Reach, Target, and Safety schools. Reach schools are those where your qualifications are below the average of admitted students, while Safety schools are those you are highly likely to get into. By balancing your list, you increase your chances of being admitted to at least one of your Target schools while still striving to achieve your dream school. Having some Safety schools in your list is important as college admissions are becoming increasingly competitive and unpredictable.
The number of Reach, Target, and Safety schools you should apply to depends on your individual circumstances and goals. As a general guideline, students often apply to 2-5 Reach schools, 4-7 Target schools, and 2-3 Safety schools. However, this can vary based on factors such as your academic and extracurricular profile, financial situation, and personal aspirations. If you have a strong academic and extracurricular record, you may consider applying to more Reach schools. However, if your profile is not as strong, you may want to focus on applying to more Target or Safety schools. Keep in mind that Reach schools tend to be more expensive, so consider your financial situation when creating your list. If name recognition and prestige is important to you, you may consider applying to more Reach schools, but make sure to balance this with your chances of being admitted and your financial considerations.
Early Decision and Early Action
Another crucial decision when creating your college list is determining how many schools you want to apply to in the early round. Consider the pros and cons of Early Decision and different forms of Early Action before making this decision, as we discussed extensively in another blog article. Only apply Early Decision if you are confident that you would enroll at the college if accepted. If you do not have a top choice school, consider taking advantage of Early Action options offered by your Target or Safety schools. Although Early Action does not significantly increase your chances of acceptance, it does allow you to receive your admission decision sooner, reducing some of the stress of the college application process.
The optimal time to finalize your college list varies based on the application deadlines of the colleges you are interested in, but generally, we advise having your list settled by October of your senior year and, ideally, by the end of the summer before senior year, particularly if you plan to apply for Early Decision or Early Action. This provides you with ample time to prepare your application materials, such as essays and standardized test scores, well before the application deadline. Moreover, you will have ample time to visit colleges, participate in college fairs, and connect with college representatives if necessary. It is crucial to give yourself sufficient time to weigh your options and make informed decisions about the colleges you want to apply to.