It's All About The List

While numbers don't tell the entire story of what highly selective schools look for in college applicants, they do provide clear information about what GPA or test score you will need to be in the running for admission and what you need to take into consideration when building your college list. There are exceptions to the admitted statistics, but the pool of exceptions are often nationally ranked athletes, legacies, and students with a particular talent. Beth Slattery in her article,​List-Making and Loving The Child You Have writes,

"In Columbia’s application, they ask about books you’ve read for pleasure over the past year. If your child doesn’t read for pleasure (as mine doesn’t), that child SHOULD NOT APPLY TO COLUMBIA. Columbia is telling you what matters to them."

While you may not look at each school’s application in the early phases of your college research, be sure to review them before you finalize your college list.

If you are a highly motivated student who didn’t require tutors to scaffold your success in high school and are involved in activities on a national level, you may be a strong candidate for applying to some highly selective schools. Building a balanced list with a good mix of “best fit,” “likely,” and “reach schools” is still in your best interest. A good college list will have schools that provide a healthy range of opportunities while ensuring that achieving academic goals (whether that is having specific majors or offering flexibility in changing majors) are possible at each school. A college list heavily focused on “reach” schools is lopsided and will lead to the eventual sting of disappointment. Too often “likely” schools get a bad rap and are associated with settling, when in fact a “likely” school may offer greater opportunities for success, providing one-on-one interactions with professors, smaller class sizes, an honors program, internship opportunities, merit scholarships, and balance between academics and outside interests.

How to use college search resources:

Try to simplify your college research and maximize your time and productivity by focusing on two or three websites (like the ones below), so that you become fluent in the information they provide and can compare schools "apples to apples." There are a number of resources available, but consistency will provide a clear picture of each college you investigate.

College websites are the true "Holy Grail" for college research. Keep in mind that colleges will be showing their best face, but even so, their websites will be full of the information you will want to know, such as student profile and admission statistics, not to mention the student-specific details you will want to discover - majors, dual degree programs, campus life, location, clubs, athletics, housing, food, and scholarships.

Not sure which resources to use? Here is a mix of online websites, books, and apps that will help you get started.

Websites like Big Future will help you match your GPA, test scores and interests to colleges. Some high schools offer Naviance as a college search tool for their students. Just like the College Board's Big Future, it can be useful for matching your academic information and preferences to colleges that other students from your high school have applied.

Big Future

College Scorecard



For bookworms, try the​ Fiske Guide2020 Edition or the Princeton Review's The Complete Book of Colleges. While not an exhaustive list of colleges, there will be plenty of colleges and information to sift through. Organized by state and indexed sections, these books will help you see the range of schools that could be included in your college list. While these books are weighty both literally and figuratively, it is easy to bookmark colleges you like and ones you want to return to for a closer look.

Want to do your research on the go? Both CollegeHunch and The College Fair are smartphone apps that provide easy-to-find statistics and college information as well as photos and campus details. While great for a first look and helpful for college visits, again, make sure to visit each college’s website to get the real scoop.

Building your college list takes time for self-assessment and research, whether that involves a deep dive online, reading books, or using apps. With the right tools, game plan, and support, finding schools that make sense for you is all within your control. ​

For more college resources visit College Resources and Books

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