Building a Great College List

Every student’s college list needs to be as idiosyncratic as they are. Schools that are familiar because Uncle Joe or a family friend attended, or are close to home, will seem like easy options. Don’t cross them off the list as you are getting started. Brand name schools are also tempting to immediately put on a college list but may not necessarily translate into a good fit. While these may be a good starting point, the limitations of casting a small net may stifle a student as they start to align what they want in a school with their abilities for admission.

Above all else, time is critical in building a successful list. Creating space to explore and identify a student’s strengths, interests, and future aspirations allows a student to pinpoint colleges that will support them and enrich their college experience. There are over 4000 schools to consider; why limit yourself when starting to build your college list?

At the core of building a balanced list, students need to identify the key qualities essential to supporting their goals and success. Prioritizing what is important to you will lead to a college list that includes qualities that you want, and as importantly, qualities that you don’t want. Here are some questions to get you started -- next step: write your own.

Do you thrive in small group discussions and face-to-face interactions with teachers? Look for schools that offer a small classroom environment with professors teaching freshman and sophomore courses. Make sure to check if professors or graduate students are teaching lower-division courses when looking at the student-teacher ratio. Schools that only allow upperclassmen to access the small classroom experience may not be for you.

Are you considering a larger campus to take advantage of a wide range of courses and activities, but worry that you might get lost? Think about how to make a campus smaller by finding a niche, like a Learning Community, or Honors College or Residential Program. Consider schools that will offer flexibility in your academic path.

Can you cross-enroll between colleges or programs? Investigating ways to expand your college experience through cross-enrollment or college exchange programs is just one avenue to explore before you finalize your college list.

How easy is it to change majors or transfer colleges? You may enter college thinking you want to major in one area, but as you take courses you may discover majors and programs more compelling that you hadn’t considered before.

These are just some of the questions you can utilize when developing your criteria for colleges. Once you start researching schools; looking at academics, curriculum, school size, culture, athletics, activities, location and where to find your favorite foods, building a list of strong options should come into focus for you. Ultimately, there will be trade-offs as the list is refined, but casting a wide net will capture more options and opportunities and improve your chances of finding schools that match.

What else do you need to know or put into place as you develop a college list that will support your aspirations?

College Rankings: Get A Second Opinion, Brennan Barnard, Forbes

Ten College Qualities You Shouldn't Ignore – COLLEGEdata

Top 15 Mistakes to Avoid in Choosing a College

Do you have questions about how to begin your college journey, or considering if you will need support? Send me an email

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