The Ins and Outs of Building a Realistic College List

Most of my clients don’t have a plan for building their college list. Each school on their preliminary list is there because the client “likes it” for some intangible reason. Many choose colleges because of family pressure, community perception, or “prestige.” Although there are many excellent colleges to choose from, how do you create the correct list for you?

Start by asking yourself these questions.

  1. What physical environment best suits me? Am I most comfortable in an urban, suburban, or rural setting?
  2. Am I excited about living in another area of the country far from home, or prefer to stay within driving distance or a short plane ride from home?
  3. What type of weather am I accustomed to, and can I handle a cold, snowy campus during the winter months?
  4. What interests me academically, and does this college offer courses in this field? Can I make this my college major and earn a bachelor’s degree?
  5. How do I learn best? Do I thrive in a classroom with fewer than 20 students where active participation with the teacher is the norm? Or can I learn in a larger group setting with 40+ students with teacher-directed instruction rather than discussion-oriented instruction? What size school offers me the learning environment I prefer?
  6. Do I want to attend a college with active sports teams, or is this not an essential component of my college experience?
  7. How much does the college cost? Are scholarships and other forms of financial aid readily available? How much can my family afford to contribute?

Be honest with yourself when answering these questions. Your answers will form the basis for which colleges to put on your tentative list. A school should only be on the list if you can honestly see yourself attending and being happy. If not, do not consider the school.

You begin by building on your foundation (much like a house) and choosing five or six good foundation schools, schools that are well within your reach academically. Look for colleges where your GPA and ACT/SAT scores are at or above the higher end of the published scores for enrolling students and have a good reputation in your major field of study. Next, choose five or six good match schools, schools that are more competitive but still within your reach. Finally, choose three or four reach schools, schools that are a stretch academically but ones you hope to attend, including your dream school if you have one.

Build your list by using several of the foundation (safety) and match (target) schools where the likelihood of admission is a strong possibility, along with a few reach schools. The initial list will ideally have 18-20 schools. Before beginning the application process, narrow your list down to 10-12 colleges to which you will apply. Include two to three foundation (safety) schools, five to six target schools, and two to three reach schools.

Building a list with a solid foundation will achieve your goal of multiple acceptances and college choices.

Andrea K. Frimmer, M. Ed.

Prep 4 College Now, Inc.


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