The ultimate goal in creating a college list is to focus your college admissions efforts toward where they’re going to be most effective. You want to curate a collection of 8-12 best-fit school opportunities that will give you the greatest advantages to achieve your dreams. 

The exact number of total colleges and universities in the world is a bit fluid, but it’s enough that “shopping for a school” can feel like shopping for one droplet in a waterfall (current estimates reveal that right now there are about 4,500 degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the U.S. alone). 

But there’s no reason building your list can’t be fun and manageable, especially with some expert guidance

This article will guide you through the five essential steps involved in making a great college list while teaching you:

  • What to consider when looking for a great college
  • What makes a good college list
  • How to research colleges to attend
  • How to tier your list 
  • Strategies and advice to help you every step of the way

Building a college list shouldn’t be about pressuring yourself to find and get into the one perfect school.

It should be about understanding what your goals are and which schools best meet those goals. 

Think of college like a car. 

If your future is the destination, your college is the car that’s going to get you there. 

You still have to drive yourself, but you have a conveyance for getting where you want to go, faster and easier. So you’ve got to research all the different types of cars available to you and make sure you keep checking in with your own priorities (or raising your hand if you have a question).

Some people need more than one car because they have a longer road, a further destination. Sometimes cars break down and you have to unexpectedly change vehicles. 

Not paying attention to the type of car you want and need, means you may not get where you’re going. 

And you certainly won’t have as enjoyable or simple a time getting there.

So let’s stop goofing around and get to it!

5 Steps For Creating Your College List

Start now, friend - there’s no reason to wait. The list isn’t ever locked-in unless you say it is, so the sooner you begin, the more information you’ll have gathered to help you.

Step 1: Dream & Brainstorm About College

It’s soul-searching time.

Consider your academic needs.

Explore your current career goals. 

Put on some favorite tunes and picture your ideal college leading to your happiest future… What does it include? 

By high school, most students have already been exposed to aspects of college through tv, books, as well as siblings’, friends’, and parents’ experiences. So you likely already have an idea of what you want - whether or not you’ve actually sat down and organized your thoughts. 

Start there. 

  • What does day-to-day college life look like in your head? 
  • What appeals to you?
  • What sounds horrible? 
  • Do you see big lecture halls with tons of classmates or intimate discussions with 8 people around a conference table? 
  • Do you prefer relative anonymity in a large classroom or one where the students and teachers know your name? 
  • What kind of activities do you participate in outside of classes? 
  • Do you know yet what you’d like to contribute to the world through your career, or do you need more open-ended programs that allow you to explore freely? 
  • What kind of income would you like after graduation?

TIPS For Dreaming & Brainstorming Your College Options

Don’t automatically write off private schools. Though their ticket price may look higher at first glance, they often have access to more scholarship funds than public schools do. They may have a greater ability to decrease the total tuition cost for you through merit aid or other opportunities.

Don’t automatically write off out-of-state public schools. Though on paper out-of-state tuition is higher than in-state tuition for some schools, there are also many programs that can bring the cost down to equal or even less than the cost of going to an in-state school.

Step 2: Organize Your College Spreadsheet

Use the info from step 1 to chart out a college list spreadsheet.

Set up your system in whatever way you feel the most comfortable and organized: handwritten or digital; a table in a doc or straight into spreadsheet software specifically designed for college searches.

Remember, this is for YOU. Any option works, as long as it works for you!

List your criteria in the columns across the top of your spreadsheet, based on what you now know about your goals and what will make collegiate life comfortable for you. 

Or dedicate one full page per school and list the criteria down the left side of your chart like this: 

Be sure to plan for: 

  • Extra room to jot down thoughts or note interactions with anyone connected to the school
  • A way to organize additional materials you might gather

TIPS For Organizing Your College List Spreadsheet

Who is going to most appreciate what you offer? Zone in on what you want out of a college experience, but also be sure to consider how your attendance can raise the profile of a college every bit as much as a college can raise your professional profile. Your criteria need to target schools that value what you personally bring to the table - both academically and outside of the classroom.

There isn’t only one perfect school. There are a bazillion schools that can be just the right fit for you. But in order to find them, stay open-minded. Sometimes, the best options are the ones that get closest to ideal but leave room for the unexpected. Include a ranking system where you can compare criteria in terms of how much of a deal-breaker it is. That way, it’s not just about which schools check off the largest number of boxes, but rather, which schools check off the most important boxes for you.

Step 3: Research & Record Colleges' Information

Begin researching the schools you know and start entering info on your spreadsheet. 

Consider suggestions from people you trust or institutions you’ve been reaching toward your entire life. Look closely at statistics and how colleges objectively match up to your hoped-for elements.

Pay particular attention to the money:

  • What is the net cost?
  • The average amount borrowed by students in order to get through to the end?
  • What is the loan default rate?
  • What does the scholarship/merit aid field look like?

Some other biggies to consider:

  • Graduation rate
  • Employment rate after graduation
  • Student life
  • The type of student and teacher the school attracts most

TIPS For Researching Colleges And Adding To Your List

When it comes time to apply, you may find that some schools track which prospective students have demonstrated a strong interest in attending their school. Take advantage of this system by behaving as if all your priority schools do track demonstrated interest. Not only can it possibly help you earn those acceptance letters, but it will give you valuable insight into each school. 

Places you can easily learn more about a college:

  • Googling a college’s common data set
  • School websites (especially the areas dedicated to “current students,” not just prospective students )
  • Social media 
  • Specific info pages about majors and programs 
  • Virtual tours 
  • Connecting with current students for their opinions 

Step 4: Dig Deeper To Find More College Options

Continue to compile and expand your list. Cast a wider net now and specifically target schools that you may not have heard of or considered before. 

See if there are any columns on your spreadsheet that schools aren’t hitting and start searching for schools that will specifically hit those goals.

As you decide on schools to include on your list:

  • Don’t dismiss (or accept) recommendations out of hand without doing your own thorough research.
  • Double-check things you’ve heard against verified facts.
  • Don’t simply focus on big-name schools. Search for hidden gems that can get you where you want to go, but for less money and with greater ease.
  • Look at the classes offered. Look at the professors teaching. Who will you be working with for the next few years?
  • Location matters, but what you’re doing is always more important than where you’re doing it.

TIPS For Choosing Colleges To Add To Your List

Don’t be fooled by selectivity. That a school is selective does not automatically imply the school is better, either objectively or specifically for you. Back to the car analogy - expensive cars don’t make every driver happier. Sometimes older models run better and break less often. Brand names don’t guarantee a safe, pleasurable experience. You may want to look at gas mileage, its effect on the environment, whether it can fit your business and family needs, etc. Apply this mentality to your college search too. 

Don’t be fooled by college rankings. Similar to the artificial hierarchies in other industries, college comparison rankings are highly problematic and often more political or economics-reflecting than accurate. Even people who love brand names can’t agree on which is best - so don’t feel pressured to look over your shoulder and choose something based on someone else’s bias. Stay focused on what you value most.

Step 5 - Prioritize & Sort Your College List

Narrow down and categorize your list.

Again, you’re aiming for 8-12 really good-fit schools to apply to. (Closer to 12 is especially important if you’re looking for scholarships and keeping costs down.)

This is the moment to emphasize subjective factors like a sense of belonging and gut instinct. 

Divide your list into three sections:

  1. Likely. You are pretty much guaranteed to get in (75% or higher odds).
  2. Target. Your stats line up (or are even a bit higher) than the average admitted student (you have a 50% chance or higher of being admitted).
  3. Reach.  Wildcard schools where acceptance rates are so low, there’s no predicting who will be admitted (think acceptance likelihood lower than 35%).

TIPS For Sorting Through Your College List

Have an even mix of each tier in your final list. You want to have easy, hard, and reasonable options to apply to so your list is balanced.

Really commit yourself to a smaller list. Applying to all eight Ivy League colleges, for example, (all of which have single-digit acceptance rates) doesn’t give you a greater chance of getting into any one of them. Be strategic and maximize the potential you have to bring in those acceptance letters.

Be brave when including the schools that you feel are “best fits”. If you don’t ask to be admitted, it's certain that you won’t be. If you do ask, you may be pleasantly surprised even by those you consider a stretch. 

Extra Credit Advice For Building The Best College List

Don’t be afraid to change your mind. You’re going to go through several drafts of your college list as new information gets assimilated and as you clarify what you are looking for in a college.

You can’t know what you don’t know, and that’s okay! Important search processes can be overwhelming. There are so many options and so many “finder” tools, how do you sort through it without making the search your full-time job?

Take a deep breath. Believe in yourself. And if you need extra help, engage the services of someone who does do all this work as their full-time job

To return to the car analogy one last time: Working with an expert can sometimes mean the difference between buying yourself a great car or what could charitably be called a fancy go-cart. 

When it comes to the college admissions process, building your strongest college list is the heart of March Consulting’s expertise.

Wanna speed up the search and find schools that could be the best fit for you - schools that you may never even have heard of? 

Wanna know what you don’t know?

 We’re here and happy to help you.