Your College List — The Key to Success

The development of a balanced and well-researched College List is essential to success in college admissions. It is the set of colleges that suit a student exceptionally well and to which he or she will apply for admission in senior year. Seniors should be finalizing their lists and juniors should begin researching and developing their lists at the beginning of fall semester.

A key consideration in College List development is the number of schools that should be on it. While there’s no right number, we recommend that students apply to a minimum of 6 and a maximum of 15 colleges. Our preferred range is 8 to 12. Less than 6 doesn’t spread the risk enough and more than 15 dissipates the effort required to focus on each individual school.

Setting Criteria

The first step in building a College List is to establish the set of goals and preferences against which the student will compare colleges. They should select and prioritize criteria that suit them but be sure to cover the major variables by which colleges differ from one another. They should also give added weight to the criteria most important to them. Most students weigh affordability and academic suitability most heavily.

There are many subjective factors that come to bear on the selection of best-fit colleges. These include characteristics like geographic location, campus setting, student body size and profile, extracurricular opportunities, average class size, faculty involvement, mentorship availability, science labs, art studios, performance venues, cultural and recreational opportunities, transportation, climate, student diversity, and student-to-faculty ratio.

After selecting and assigning weights to their criteria, students should assess how well different colleges match them. They should start with a list of colleges-of-interest. A long list can be reduced through research to a more manageable size. When it’s down to about 20 schools, the student may wish to discuss the list with family, friends, current students, alumni, and their guidance counselor. The final selections for the College List, however, belong to the student.

The best way to select best-fit schools is to visit them. This may be impractical, so students should first visit nearby schools to confirm the practicality of their criteria, then venture afield. Just the vibes that students get at the first few schools will enable them to shorten their list.

Sources of Information About Colleges

Students need accurate information to guide them in developing their College List. There are several types of sources available, as follows:

  1. Subjective Guides 

Subjective guides are useful in assessing how comfortable a student is likely to feel at a particular college. A good example is the Fiske Guide, which consists of student opinions about academic programs, popular majors, intellectual climate, campus amenities, accessibility of faculty, athletics, social life, and the geographic area.

  1. Magazine Rankings 

The most popular magazine ranking resource is U.S. News & World Report, which ranks colleges in several different categories. Rankings can only provide an indication of a college’s merits relative to peer institutions and shouldn’t be relied on too heavily. Rankings ordered by different standards are published by Money, Forbes, Princeton Review, Kiplinger’s, Washington Monthly, and Barron’s.

  1. The Common Data Set

Magazine publishers and colleges use a shared database called the Common Data Set (CDS). CDS is also available for personal research. To find the CDS data for a college, enter “Common Data Set Name-of-College” into a search engine.

  1. Objective Guides 

Students should review statistical profiles of colleges. The Complete Book of Colleges from Princeton Reviewhas a great deal of helpful data for students researching colleges. The magazine rankings issues also contain extensive data sets.

  1. Scholarship Search Sites – Unigo lists over 600,000 scholarships of all types that may be available to students who apply for them. Other scholarship sites include BigFuture,, Fastweb, Cappex, Niche, Chegg, and Scholly.
  1. The Federal Government

The College Scorecard is a web-based resource maintained by the U.S. Department of Education for use in comparing the cost and value of colleges. It provides information on Programs, Degrees, Location, Size, Mission, and Type of College.

  1. College Websites

Students should review the websites of colleges to which they’re considering applying. They have a wealth of information, including admissions requirements, academic programs, curricula by major, athletic facilities, dining plans, residential options, campus amenities, and more. They are indispensable for college research.

Create Three Tiers of Colleges 

A common approach to developing a College List is to divide the colleges into three tiers. A student should be confident that they would be happy to attend any of the colleges on any of the tiers. A student shouldn’t bother to apply to any school that they have no intention of attending.

The three tiers are distinguished as follows:

  • Colleges to which the student will almost certainly be admitted and can afford
  • Colleges to which the student will probably be admitted and may be able to afford
  • Colleges that the student aspires to attend but at which they have only a small chance of admission (without taking affordability into account)

We refer to the three tiers as Likely, Target, and Reach. They differ by their academic standards for admission and their affordability. Students should compare their GPA and test scores to the data for a college’s last freshmen class. This is available from CDS and other sources. CDS breaks down data such as freshmen GPA and test scores into percentiles so students can see where they stand compared to the most recent students admitted at a college.

An overview of the three tiers is provided below:

  1. Likely: 75% Chance of Admission

Likely school is one at which the student’s academic record falls above the average GPA and test scores of last year’s freshmen. Applicants can feel confident that they’ll be admitted.

  1. Target: 50% Chance of Admission 

A Target school is one at which the applicant’s academic record falls at about the average level of last year’s freshmen. It’s reasonable to anticipate admission to these schools. However, there’s an unknown risk inherent in the varying number and quality of applications that a college receives from year to year. The availability of adequate financial aid is also uncertain at the time of application.

  1. Reach: 25% Chance of Admission 

Reach schools (Dream schools) are those that the student aspires to attend but at which they have only a small chance of admission. The applicant’s academic record places them at the lower end of last year’s successful applicants, but not so low that they won’t even be considered. Students who don’t apply to their dream school will regret it even if the chances of acceptance are low.

Have an Edge Over Competitors

Essays, interviews, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities are all means by which a student can distinguish themselves from other applicants who have similar academic records. Of these, essays have the most potential to improve a student’s case for admission.

With Target and Reach schools, the chance of admission is substantially improved by a strong hook, which is a talent, skill, or other trait that qualifies the student to fill a need at the college.

An applicant needs to be emotionally prepared to be rejected by Target and Reach schools. Nobody likes rejection, but by striving to attend the best of the colleges that fit them, applicants must gamble on rejection.

Early Application Programs

The process of identifying the colleges that fit the student best and narrowing them down to a few in each tier is difficult and time-consuming. Adding to the complexity is the need to consider Early Application programs, including Early Decision, Early Action, Restricted Early Action, and Single-Choice Early Action.

The chance of acceptance by many colleges is improved significantly if the student applies in the early cycle. However, it’s important to choose Early Application opportunities carefully because they vary widely in their terms and options. For example, in an Early Decision program, a student makes a commitment to a first-choice institution where, if admitted, they must enroll. They must withdraw all other applications.

The arduous process of constructing an effective College List is worth the effort, since the outcome will be acceptance at one or more of the colleges that fit the student best. It’s a significant step in the achievement of a student’s educational goals.

Conversations with an Admit you to College consultant help students to recognize the right colleges for them and to construct an effective College List. We’re good at what we do; we make applying to colleges a smoother and more productive process. We offer the opportunity for families to get expert advice from an unbiased professional about the most important milestone in a young person’s life.