Developing Your College List

By Robert W Andrews

With more than 3,500 colleges in the United States alone, the process of narrowing down the college search to 8-12 schools can be daunting. Students who utilize research and develop their list systematically should find applying to college easy, and perhaps even fun. A successful search process should involve a great deal of self-reflection and open conversations with family and school counselors. Students with a balanced list of colleges and universities will end with strong choices. It is good to think about applying to at least three “reach” schools, three “target” schools, and three “likely” schools. Some schools will always be considered a “far reach” because of the sheer number of applicants applying, but other schools could be a “likely” to one student and a “reach” for another. Working with your college counselor closely to determine which schools fall into those categories is crucial. This is a highly personalized process.  Post self-reflection, students are advised to research schools by looking at college view books and websites, and then ultimately visiting schools. Finally, talking with students who currently attend schools you are considering is another important barometer in making the right selection.


Before building a list, students are advised to reflect on the type of educational and social experience they desire to have in college. This process will help develop parameters for their college search. The major areas to think about are:

1)      Field of study, undecided, pre-professional?
2)      Social feel? School Spirit? Traditions?  
3)      Specific talent (athletics, arts, music, foreign language)?
4)      Diversity?
5)      Geography? Urban? Rural?
6)      Academic Calendar: block plan, semester, trimester, 4-1-4, 4-4-1?
7)      Financial Aid Policies?

There are no “right answers,” this is personal journey. Finding schools that are a good “fit” in your “reach”, “target”, and “likely schools” is important to making the best college match.

If you are coming from a community where the vast majority of kids do not end up at four year colleges, the chances are that many “prestigious” schools will not have much name recognition. Do not let this deter you from applying, even if members of your family or teachers in your school don’t understand where you are applying. The benefits will become clear later in life.

How to Navigate a College Website

Once you have decided to research a particular school, the best thing to do is to see what it has to say for itself – in its’ own words.  Go to the website and start to explore.  Some students have an easy time surfing a college website, looking at the many sections; others don’t know where to start. Here are a few pointers:

  • Check out the history and mission of the school. Typically there is an “about” section on the main page. Take a look at why the school was founded, by whom and the values that the institution holds. 
  • Look at the “fast facts” or “in brief” section to learn about the basic information about the school.
  • Visit the Admissions page and sign up for their mailing list. It may say “mailing list” or “request further information.” This will allow you to receive more publications in the mail.
  • See who your admissions representative is for that particular school, so you know who will be reading your application. You also may want to contact this individual later to ask questions.
  • Click on the “academics” page and see what majors and areas of study the school has to offer.  Explore these pages in detail. If they have a major you think you might want to study, make sure to see what classes are listed and how many professors teach in that department. See if any of the professor’s interests match yours.
  • Check out the “Student Life” page of the website. See what sorts of activities have happened during the last year. See what clubs and activities exist.  Get a feel for life outside of the classroom.
  • If you are an athlete, make sure to sign up to be a prospective recruit.  You will need your statistics to fill out these forms, but they are important if you want coaches to contact you to play in college.
  • Peruse the website for student videos and other items that look unique to the school. 

Recommended Guidebooks

There are many college guide books, but the following standout for having useful and unique perspectives:

The Fiske Guide, by Edward Fiske, is a more traditional guidebook that offers rich descriptions of a variety of institutions.

The Hidden Ivies, by Howard and Mathew Greene, offers a strong guide to a diverse group of schools, but more important, it offers an important chapter on the value of a small liberal arts college. A must read for every college bound student and parent.

Loren Pope’s Colleges that Change Lives has a title that says it all. (

The College Finder, by Steven Antonoff, is a great tool for a veteran college counselor, but for a savvy student, this book is full of amazing lists compiled to help sort colleges by multiple variables.

The Final List

By the end of junior year in high school, you should have a working list of about 10-25 colleges and/or universities; narrowing that list by April of senior year to 8-12 schools. What you think you want in September of your senior year might be completely different when April rolls around. Creating a balanced and diverse list will ensure you make the best “fit” and keep you from feeling stuck in the end. 


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