With over 4,000 colleges and universities in the US – and even more abroad – it can be an overwhelming task to narrow down a college list to make it manageable. But it's both financially and physically untenable to apply to every school that comes across your radar screen, which makes it essential to create a balanced and feasible list when evaluating the right schools for you.
By reviewing several common mistakes and examining a few best practices, you can craft a college list that takes into account your interests, career plans and ideal environment so you'll be happy no matter which school on the list accepts you.
Filter out the Noise
One big mistake that kids make in creating their college lists is that they base their school choices on where their friends are going, where their parents went or other criteria that may not apply to them. “It's understandable because students may have only heard of those schools, and we all rely on firsthand recommendations when making big decisions," said Jodi Siegel, a college admissions consultant with College Bound in Potomac, Md., and former admissions officer at George Washington University. “However, most students don't have a good grasp of whether those schools would actually be a good fit for them."
Researching schools online is helpful, but can sometimes skew students' aspirations when reviewing a college's statistics. If 99 percent of admitted students have GPAs of 3.5 or higher and one percent have GPAs below 2.5, many students will look at the applicants in the one percent range and assume they'll be that exception as well.
“In most cases, those students who are the exceptions may have special circumstances," Siegel said. “Maybe they were student athletes recruited by a coach, or have other situations, but what's important is to keep a focused perspective." Therefore, you shouldn't look at the outliers on the admissions statistics and expect that you'll be the next one. It could happen, but it may not statistically be likely.
Research Is Essential
When creating a college list, make sure the schools you're considering are in the right type of environment for your interests (such as whether the schools have athletic teams, are rural, have small class sizes, provide Greek life opportunities, etc.) and that they offer your intended major. In addition, do as much research as possible, including visiting the campus, speaking with current and former students and visiting school representatives at college fairs.
“People put more research into buying a car, which is about a $30,000 to $60,000 investment, than they do into evaluating a four-year educational experience, which can cost between $80,000 and $280,000," Siegel said. “Be informed, do as much research as possible and visit the school if you can."
Creating a balanced college list is essential when evaluating schools, so students shouldn't create a list that includes only reach schools, but they should also not identify one match school and apply to that college only, since there's never a guarantee of getting accepted, Siegel advises.
“I typically tell students that they should have at least three schools they feel very confident about getting into, and anything else beyond that is up to the student," she says. When it comes to adding reach schools to the list, Siegel advises parents that if a school really feels like the right fit, those students should be supported in applying, as long as they have a few match schools on their list as well. “What's essential is that they put as much work into their match school applications as they do with their reach schools," she advises.
How many schools are too many? Students who create giant lists are potentially subject to “application fatigue," Siegel said. “I usually find that if a student applies to more than 10 schools, the quality of the application tends to decline."
When in Doubt, Seek Expert Help
Because curating a college list can be overwhelming, students are encouraged to ask for help from someone who has experience. “You want to talk to someone who can review your stats, your interests and your goals who can give you feedback on whether your list is sound," Siegel said. That could be your school counselor, a consultant or even someone who recently went through the process who can offer advice.