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How To Create A College List (Don’t Just Look At The Rankings!)

If you are applying to college this fall, you’ve hopefully already begun putting together your college list. But you may still be working out the details, which is just fine. Here are 3 tips to help you make sure you have a balanced and exciting list of schools to apply to.

Consider school characteristics

Choosing a college isn’t just about brand name. You want to make sure you’ll be happy on a campus that meets your academic, extracurricular, and personal needs.

If the activities that give meaning to your life are hiking, canoeing, and fishing, you probably won’t want to go to college in an urban setting. On the other hand, if you’re all about visiting museums and writing a food blog, a school in New York or Chicago may be perfect for you.

Consider the school’s size—you’ll have a very different experience at, say, Texas A&M (over 50,000 undergrads) than you will at Marlboro College (under 200 students in all four years). Consider also Greek life, how far you want to be from home, the selection of clubs and other extracurricular factors, etc.

It should go without saying that you’ll want to visit the colleges on your list if you haven’t already. Do this as soon as possible, and trust your gut feeling when you’re on campus. You may realize you have some rather quirky criteria for a college. I worked with a student who decided not to apply to Tufts after he visited the campus because he really didn’t want to be walking up and down a hill all day.

Look at specific academic strengths

What do you plan on majoring in? It’s fine to be unsure, and most colleges give you plenty of time to explore different academic disciplines before you have to declare. You may be hesitating between, say, history, international relations, and political science, but you have a sense of where your intellectual strengths and interests lie. Keep this in mind as you explore different colleges to apply to. Once again, a college is more than a brand name. I guarantee there are schools out there that, although they may not have the name recognition of Harvard or Amherst, have very strong programs that will fit your academic needs.

Be wary of college rankings. I won’t get into the problems I see with the hierarchies that publications like U.S. News establish, but if you want to get a sense of the strength of a specific school, be sure also to look at rankings for specific majors—not just overall rankings. You may be surprised by some of the top-10 lists for specific majors. The best academic programs for you may not all be Ivy League schools!

Research admissions statistics

You want to create a balanced college list. This means, among other things, making sure you’ve got “safety” (or “likely”), “target,” and “reach” schools. How do you know which are safety, target and reach schools?

Recently, I received a phone call from a parent who asked me: “Is the University of Delaware a safety school?” It was a good question, but I had to explain that, never having met his daughter, and never having seen her transcripts and activities list, I needed a little more info.

Whether you can call a college a safety school has everything to do with how you as an applicant compare to the kinds of students the college typically accepts. (The one exception to this rule are highly selective schools with single-digit acceptance rates. Some schools are reach schools for just about everyone on the planet.)

Generally, if your standardized test scores are higher than the middle 50% of the scores of accepted students, if your GPA is higher than the middle 50%, and if your activities list is more impressive than most, then you may be looking at a safety school. For target schools, you’ll be within that middle 50% range. For reach schools, you may be on the low end of the middle 50%, or below it.

But all this also depends on other more personal factors, such as which major you intend to pursue, and it depends on whether you are applying to a specific program (such as an honors program like the one the University of Delaware has). Don’t underestimate how important your extracurriculars are in determining your eligibility for a given school!

One thing I want to emphasize: in my experience, certain applicants tend to underestimate the importance of target schools. They know they need a safety school or two, but other than that they want to apply to all the Ivies. The risk here is that none of the reach schools will pan out, and you end up at a college where you’re frankly overqualified. Don’t forget to spend time compiling a solid list of target schools you can get excited about.

The bottom line here is that you’ll want to do your research carefully. If you are feeling overwhelmed, do not hesitate to contact our Ivy League college consultants. Initial consultations are free!

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