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Advice to My Senior Self: Building the College List

Western façade of UC Santa Barbara Library (panorama). Image by UCSB Library. CC BY-SA 2.0.

It’s September, and for most students, the new school year is already underway. As their younger peers dry off from the pool and bid summer’s hours of freedom and nonstop video games adieu, it’s time for twelfth graders to finalize their list of the 6 to 12 colleges to which they will apply.

The Class of 2021 has an extra challenge this year. Because the pandemic has derailed so many travel plans, including the summer college-tour road trip that has become a rite of passage for soon-to-be seniors, more students than ever before will have to decide where to apply—and, ultimately, where to go—without the luxury of visiting prospective schools in person.

But never fear! COVID-19 notwithstanding, there are many, many ways students can narrow down their college choices to a list that is at once manageable and thorough, whether they’ve seen the colleges for themselves or not.

As in our previous blog post about the college essay-writing process, I spoke to some recent high school grads and asked them to look back on the thoughts they had when putting together their own college lists at the beginning of the last school year.

When it comes to deciding where to apply, Isabella, an incoming first-year at UCSD, says, “You have to look at yourself and see what you want to get out of college.” Isabella is right! Coming up with a college list is a deeply personal process that will give you insights into yourself and what going to college signifies for you, as well as helping you determine where you can best picture yourself living and studying for four years of your life. Here are a few tips to help you develop a list that will give you a lot of good options.

Research your schools carefully

Many students choose their colleges based on where their friends are applying, where their parents went, or what their teachers say, without taking the time to do the research themselves. Please do not do this. As Enzo, a new NYU freshman, says, “an oft-repeated phrase I hear is that there is nothing to lose from more applications. When [the time it takes to apply] is factored in, that changes really quickly!”

Given how much effort, time, and money goes into one application, students should make sure that every college on their list, safeties and reaches alike, is somewhere they would be thrilled to go. So how can students best compile a list of schools that makes them happy?

According to Isabella, “you have to take in everything that a college offers and decide [to apply] based on that.” This includes everything from programs offered to weekend activities and social life: is this really a place you could picture yourself living and learning?

About his own experience choosing the eleven schools to which he applied, Enzo says that for “the four years I’ll be attending university, it will be my home, after all, and I wanted a place where I could explore,” adding that he applied mainly to small, liberal arts colleges but also threw a few larger ones into the mix.

The key to finding the right school is to get a feel for the “vibe” of the campuses and student communities where you want to apply. Although atmosphere is best experienced on a college visit, there are still a few things you can determine about a school and the kind of people who thrive there from researching it on your own. For example, Will, a University of Pennsylvania first-year, says:

The key to finding the right school is to get a feel for the vibe of the campuses and student communities where you want to apply. Although atmosphere is best experienced on a college visit, there are still a few things you can determine about a school and the kind of people who thrive there from researching it on your own. For example, Will, a University of Pennsylvania first-year, says:

“I would go through a college’s website and find something that I found interesting, and if there was an email address listed, I would just email someone. If they respond, that’s a definite plus. There were some colleges where I didn’t get responses, and that really turned me off from the college, because you really want to be able to interact with people if you’re in college, or talk to your professors and really get access to things like that.”

To current seniors, he recommends:

“Don’t be afraid to just reach out. I know it can sometimes seem like, ‘I’m just a high schooler; they don’t want to talk to me,’ but if you show interest and you genuinely want to get to know them, then they’re going to respond. I would recommend just reaching out as much as possible.”

Merton College, Oxford
Merton College, Oxford. Image courtesy of Matthew Enger

Identify your criteria

Try making a list of the things you need in a school (such as a strong pre-med program) and another of the things you want (like a large student population and a warm climate). By recognizing the difference between your absolute musts and still-important-but-less-critical preferences, it will be easier to streamline your list into a feasible number of good college fits.

As Isabella said, it’s important to consider all the different features you’re looking for in a college, from academics to social life and extracurricular opportunities. Enzo says that “the biggest factor, in my case, centered around what would be best for my future studies. I knew I wanted a school that was strong in the majors I was interested in—politics and English—and I wanted a place that would allow me to study these fields with the best opportunities.”

It is crucial to evaluate all of your potential colleges based on the programs they offer, and more specifically, whether they have your intended major(s). Many very popular liberal arts colleges, for example, do not have pre-professional majors, so students interested in studying nursing or business have to make sure that their chosen colleges will give them the option to be involved in those fields during undergrad.

If you’re thinking about taking a gap year before starting college, you must also have colleges on your list that allow gap years fairly readily (some of the UCs, for example, allow gap years only for students with extreme circumstances).

For almost all students, finances also play an important part in the college search. Families can use the net price calculator (NPC) on every college’s financial aid website to determine the estimated cost of attending a specific college, based on their unique financial situation. If cost is a consideration, you won’t want to come up with a list of colleges you’re really excited about, only to realize that you might not be able to afford them.

Factors such as location, weather, size, and distance from home can be as important as cost and programs offered when deciding where you want to live for the next few years of your life. Although some considerations, like being close to family, may be very important to you, keep an open mind when developing your list. The right fit for you might turn out to be in a different part of the country or much bigger or smaller than you imagine, so it’s a good idea to start by finding schools in your price range that match your academic and extracurricular interests before moving on to their other features.

Include targets, safeties, and reaches

For students interested in applying to big-name colleges with highly competitive admissions, Enzo suggests that you avoid “applying to solely ‘top schools’ to make it to the top. Don’t get me wrong—I applied to an ample amount of reach schools myself.” However, he encourages this year’s seniors to, “assert priorities and keep a proper selection of the schools you most align with [socially, academically, etc.]. Don’t feel embarrassed to add targets and safeties, which can provide their own sets of opportunities separate from simple college ratings.”

Try to stay away from the rankings and apply to schools that will be a good fit for you personally and academically, whether they’re part of the “Top Ten” or not. This is easier said than done, I know, but the school that thrills you with its course offerings, activities, and opportunities and makes you feel at home is the right one to choose.

Finally, here are a few tried-and-true resources that high school students can look to as they plan their college application list, no matter where they are in the college search process.

1) Fiske Guide To Colleges
The Fiske Guide, re-published every year, profiles 300+ four-year colleges and universities in the United States. The descriptions, are very detailed, and while there could be a little more diversity in the kinds of colleges covered, the sheer number of profiles offered make the Fiske Guide a great starting place for college research. One helpful feature is the “Overlaps” section in each school’s profile, which lists other, similar colleges that tend to share applicants with the one in question, which can be very helpful for students trying to flesh out their college lists.

2) Colleges That Change Lives and The Hidden Ivies
These books contain more nuanced descriptions of more specialized groups of colleges. The Colleges That Change Lives website offers over 40 free profiles of excellent, lesser-known liberal arts colleges, while the book The Hidden Ivies discusses around 30 liberal arts colleges in great depth.

3) and
Both of these websites offer candid testimonials from actual college students; as with all anonymous Internet reviews, however, some of these are better taken with a grain of salt.

The College Board’s website provides overviews of thousands of schools in the U.S. Unlike most college guidebooks, it includes descriptions of community colleges and other two-year institutions.

This website explains the average costs and post-graduation salaries for students at every accredited college in America.

There is so much to consider when deciding where to apply, and this year in particular has its own set of challenges for college-bound high school seniors. Luckily, by being clear about their college needs, and with a little careful planning, students can develop a list that will give them the best chance of ending up at a school that will be a fantastic fit.

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