Mapping Out Your College List

When starting the college search, the big questions are often the following: ”How do I begin?”, “What book should I use?”, “What’s the best college search website?”, and “How do I know which schools will accept me?” It’s tempting to rely on the US News College rankings as a starting point, but truthfully, most students and parents know that this isn’t the place to find the information that they will ultimately want and need. Forbes writer Willard Dix reminds us in his article, "College Rankings Just Confirm What We Already Know", what the college rankings are all about. Students are often most familiar with colleges that family members and friends have attended, the college of a favorite sports team, or a college they have learned of through media. While that type of familiarity offers name recognition and potentially on-campus experience, what often is missing are the details that will distinguish a school from others so that students and families can make appropriate comparisons.

So where do students and families begin? The Fiske Guide Book 2020, College Board’s Big Future website, and the Common Application are accessible, easy to navigate, and are good starting points for students just beginning to map out colleges to research. Students who have taken a PSAT will be more familiar with College Board and might even receive correspondence from colleges if they “opted in” while filling out their PSAT answer sheet. The Fiske Guide Book, College Board’s Big Future website, and Common Application app are only three resources; there are many other books, websites, apps, and resources that students can utilize that will provide specific details on programs, majors, culture, athletics, and location. Taking advantage of free tools like Corsava or Collegexpress will help you begin to define your priorities and find colleges that offer what you want for your college experience.

You also want to answer these essential questions:

How do I identify the nuanced differences between colleges?

How do I refine a college list based on fit, strengths, interests, and opportunities specific to me?

What is the right number of colleges on a balanced college list?

With so many college choices and the ease of the Common Application, students and families working independently might think that expanding the number of schools on their college list will leverage their acceptance odds, cover their bases, and reduce anxiety. While this rationale sounds good in theory, it is often counter-productive. A larger college list creates more work and stress, both of which are unnecessary in the college process. Can students begin and navigate the college admissions process on their own? Absolutely. With the right tools and resources, a student that is a self-starter, a good writer, and has time management skills can fly solo. Students should absolutely be in the driver's seat of their college search and application process, but assessing a student’s ability versus desire, schedule, and time availability should also be considered when deciding if they can drive the process on their own or if they need more support. Like any new endeavor, the value gained from accessing good resources, tools, and seasoned advice can make the difference between a difficult and a positive experience and lead to a successful outcome. Mapping out the college process, knowing where to start, and identifying end goals are key first steps. Ensuring that you have the right tools and support in place is an investment in a strong result.

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