How to Pick the Right Colleges for You


Choosing the list of colleges to apply to can be a daunting task, especially with so many options available. It’s important to pick colleges that are a good overall “fit” for your needs and goals, not just because they are name-brand colleges that feel familiar or seem to have prestige. In this blog, we explore tips for making a college list, from identifying a good academic fit to all the factors that make up your ideal college criteria. 

When to Start Making Your List

If you’re really on the ball sophomore year then it’s great to start touring colleges to get a sense of what you like and dislike. Some families start earlier, but I’m not convinced most teens are ready to appreciate the experience. I caution teens about touring and falling in love with elite universities with acceptance rates under 10%! Even for unweighted 4.0 GPA students, those acceptances are hit or miss. Start by touring schools in your region, both big and small, with slightly competitive and safer options for admissions. Psychologically, start to wrap your head around the idea that college is around the corner! Most students tour a few colleges the summer before junior year and then dig into building their college list during junior year. Ideally, there will be time for more tours during the year, over spring break, and/or in the summer before senior year. 

My student clients have their college list at 80% in late spring and locked in at 100% by August 1st before the start of senior year (ideally). We know which schools may stay or go depending on summer tours. August 1 is the day that the application portals open for the Common Application and the Univerisity of California. 

Define Your College Criteria 

By determining a set of non-negotiable factors you want in your college experience as well as those factors that “would be nice”, you have a way to reasonably evaluate each college and university you consider. Your college criteria will differ from your friends (and their friends) which is exactly why students attend a wide array of colleges across our country. To get started, take advantage of free personality and skills/interest testing offered through your school’s counseling office (possibly in systems like MaiaLearning or Naviance). Any insight you gain about yourself and your potential academic interests will help in this process. I ask my students to complete a personality assessment and a potential career profile based on strengths. We use these results to discuss a wide range of college majors. 

Other major factors that influence your college criteria include:

  • Your parents’ goals for you 
  • Your family’s budget for college 
  • Your overall academic profile (GPA, AP exams, and any SAT or ACT scores)
  • College attributes, such as:
    • Distance from home and in what region
    • Size of the surrounding town and distance from the local airport
    • Number of undergraduate students; average class size
    • Cost of attendance (COA) and availability of merit aid
    • Dorm life (a residential vs. commuter environment)
    • Availability of Greek life (or no Greek life, if preferred)
    • Athletics for fans or aspiring collegiate athletes (DI, DII, DIII, or NAIA)
    • Specific activities on campus that you’re looking for
    • Specific programs or majors you think you might want to pursue
    • Availability of Early Decision, Early Action, or Restricted EA options

To determine the importance of various college attributes, I have my students complete an online card-sorting activity called Corsava, where students rank over 140 unique campus-related characteristics. To do this on your own, search common college attributes and make a sorting game with index cards. 

After discussing all the many factors that go into a potential college experience, students start to form an image of their ideal college as well as recognize the constraints (cost, travel, weather). At this point, I remind teens that there is no one perfect college. Every possible option will have trade-offs. The one that looks like a perfect fit at the beginning of the process will end up lacking a specific major the student wants! It’s such a great growing experience to recognize the pros and cons of each college or university that ultimately gets put on the final application list. 

A note on “Early” applications

Here’s a reality check for students aiming for elite colleges like Ivy League schools. Most highly selective colleges force you to choose just one school where you might put your application in Early Decision or Restricted Early Action (where no other EA apps are allowed). Applying Early Decision increases the chance of acceptance (in some cases it doubles the AR%) but it also binds you to that school if you’re admitted. Is your family prepared to make the financial commitment to the cost of Princeton if you’re accepted? Or, would it be a better family decision that you attend a less prestigious school (but certainly a good option) where you also receive an impressive merit aid offer? Decisions, decisions. I make sure all my students research a well-balanced college list. 

Build Your First College List

Once you have your college criteria established (of 5-10 items), it’s time to pull a list of colleges. For my student clients, I look at over 70 schools and ultimately present around 30 to the family. Based on our criteria, these schools are all a “good fit” for the student but it’s up to the student to look closer at each option. If you don’t have access to a database, consider a short-term subscription to a service like CollegeRover. A well-regarded reference book is called the Fiske Guide to Colleges. which includes details on hundreds of schools. For a reasonable fee, Michelle at DIY College Rankings will create a detailed spreadsheet based on your specific criteria (her site also offers a number of prefab lists, especially for athletes). The College Finder by Steven R. Antonoff, PhD. is a tremendous resource. I subscribe to several databases including a college advising management system, CounselMore, plus I use numerous college reference books and a well-worn Fiske Guide! If you can’t pull data directly into a spreadsheet, you can build your own using these resources. (Or, contact me about helping you build a college list!) 

Here are important items to include on a college spreadsheet: 

  • Location
  • Undergraduate size
  • Acceptance Rate
  • Unweighted GPA
  • Average ACT (if applicable to you)
  • SAT ranges, both EBRW (Reading) and Math (if applicable to you)
  • Graduation rates (4 year/6 year)
  • Availability of a unique major (if applicable)
  • % of students in Greek life (if you’re interested)
  • % that live on campus (a good indicator of an active residential life)
  • % of sophomores that return (an indicator of first-year happiness on campus)
  • Cost of attendance (Google COA and the school’s name)

Sort Schools By Academic-Based Acceptance Categories

One of the first things to estimate after you’ve gathered a solid number of potential schools is what category to assign each in terms of potential admission. Is it a Safer or Likely option for you, a good “Fit” (a 50/50 chance for you – not a 50% acceptance rate), a Reach school, or an Elite? I sort by both unweighted GPA and then acceptance rate to analyze a list. If there’s a certain important criterion, that’s considered, for example, a major that’s hard to get into. Ultimately, the categories I suggest vary for each student and depend on that student’s academic profile, not the acceptance rate of schools. A student with an unweighted 3.3 will have Safer options that look quite different from a student with a 3.9 GPA. Evaluating schools for academic fit is just a basic requirement before getting to the Activities Lists and Essay portions of the application; you need to be in the academic ballpark to get your app through the door! 

Acceptance rates can be confusing. It’s tempting to pick an acceptance rate range and assign it to an estimated admission category for the student, but you have to consider both GPA (unweighted for private schools, capped weighted for the UCs) and available test scores. If you have a 3.5 and a school’s average GPA is 3.7 but your ACT score is higher than the average (32 vs. 30), then you’re still in the ballpark. Some selective schools have surprisingly high (easier) acceptance rates given their higher (more selective) average GPA because it may take 1.5 hours to travel to campus from the nearest airport by bus or train and fewer students are willing to make that commitment! Other selective schools have higher acceptance rates than expected because they are set in the geographical shadow of several more popular options. It’s hard being everyone’s second choice. On the other hand, those schools may be a strategic fit for a Fit admission!

You may find that the initial list of schools you’ve compiled is evenly distributed across potential acceptance categories you define, or it may be that you have few Safer options and need to look for more. The Fiske Guide is handy for finding comparison schools. On average, the students I work with apply to 12-15 schools. Some have applied to 17 and others to only three. The ideal list has 2-3 Safer/Likely schools, at least 8-10 Fit schools, and a couple of Reach options

For Reach schools, some students recognize the risks of applying Early Decision (it’s binding, the cost, and you don’t get to choose from other acceptances) and instead decide to apply by the regular deadline; others find the higher acceptance rate worth the risk. For students applying for ED, also consider an ED2 choice in your Application Plan (due in early January; an option only if you didn’t apply ED1 or weren’t accepted ED1). 

Once the schools are assigned to a category (which is more of an art than a science), you know how many schools you’re considering in each group on the spreadsheet to fill a limited number of spots on your College List table (the 12-15 schools you actually apply to). I make a separate table for the College List so students see it visually by groups. If you have five schools in your Safer category and you want to apply to 3 Safer options on your list, you’re looking to fill those three spots. Easy. If you have 24 schools in your Reach/Elite category to fill 2-3 spots and you really really really love every one of them: hard. 

Analyze Each School By Your College Criteria 

To evaluate if each school is a good overall fit beyond academics, cross reference what you learn about a school with the college criteria you’ve already developed. I teach my students to evaluate the quantitative data (looking at various spreadsheet columns and data points to compare) and how to seek valid qualitative resources. Qualitative research is what you would get by talking to a group of current students; it’s the inside “scoop.” Insight comes from taking an actual or a virtual tour, watching “A Day in the Life On Campus” YouTube videos, attending local college rep meetings to ask questions, and navigating/reading the website. Fortunately, many schools have added video clips to their websites since the pandemic. A student and I recently watched one together (over Zoom) and we were impressed by the clear value of hands-on learning, which is a criterion for my student. It made the list.

As you look at each school, take notes in a Doc or right in the spreadsheet. Make a code system for yourself on whether a school is a Yes, No, or Maybe for making your final College List. As soon as a school is a Yes, type it into your College List table. 

One of the students I’m currently working with is interested in Engineering (actually, several are). For the College Table, I broke the FIT schools into two categories, Fit Safer and Fit Reach. This student has only one spot left to fill for the Fit Reach section and ten options that they like! The final decision will be easier after summer college tours.

Make an Application Plan Based On Early and Regular Deadlines

Over the summer before senior year, work on the written portions of your application (activities lists and primary essays). By August, finalize your College List and make an Application Plan for the fall based on each school’s due date. 

If you are applying to a school Early Decision you can still apply Early Action to schools that allow it UNLESS your Early Decision choice specifically says that you can not, or it is a Restricted Early Action school (i.e. Yale, Stanford). I don’t know of a resource for this, so you have to check the specific restrictions, if any, of the ED school you choose.

To organize your Application Plan, make a table with the column headers of your schools’ due dates and list each school that needs to be submitted by a specific date under that header. The common dates are Oct. 15, Nov. 1, Nov. 15, Nov. 1 – Nov 30 (so “By Nov. 30”), Dec. 1 (or 5), and Jan. 5. If you’re submitting an Arts supplemental portfolio, check with each school’s relevant department because you may have a special application due date to then qualify to upload your portfolio.

Completing the College List well before the fall crunch of finishing applications will save you stress and set you up for positive results! (Don’t forget to get your teacher recommendations lined up early, end of junior year or the first week of senior year!)

Lisa Harrison, M.A., Founder, Empower College Consulting
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