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What to know

Second only to completing the applications themselves, a critical element in your college admissions process is coming up with a good college list, the 8-12 colleges that fit who you are as a person and whose academic requirements in test scores and GPA match your academic background.

Before you jump into the college selection process, step back and think about why you want to go to college and what you want from the experience. 

•  A good college list is comprised of colleges that match your GPA and test scores, as well as intellectual, personal, social, emotional, financial, spiritual, and other needs and desires.

•  The goal in creating a college list is to identify colleges that are best for you.

•  A college’s high ranking and/or prestige are not necessarily a reflection of the quality of its students’ experiences.

•  There is no shortage of high quality colleges at which high school students can apply, get accepted, and be happy.


What to know

•  Identify what you need and want in a college. Some factors you might consider in choosing colleges are:

✔  Geographic location and weather

✔  Whether a college is in a major city, suburb, a college town, a small town or in a rural area

✔  The cities which you would love to be near

✔  How far or close to your home

✔  The kind of college: liberal arts college, research-oriented large university, Ivy League, single sex college, military academy, public or private college or university

✔  Size of student body

✔  How available professors are; the size of classes

✔  In general, what the students are like

✔  What the campus environment is like

✔  The academic programs you want

•  For more characteristics to consider, take a look at the College Selection Questionnaire here.

Once you identify the characteristics you desire, write them down. As time goes by, add to and refine the list.

•  Start an initial college list by identifying the schools you already know you’re interested in. Then use your list of characteristics to find other colleges that match those characteristics.

•  Ask people you respect–your high school counselor and teachers, independent counselor, parents, older siblings and others–for suggestions of colleges that fit your preferred characteristics.

•  Once you have a list of colleges, research them by:

✔  Reading about the schools in guidebooks such as The Fiske Guide and Colleges That Change Lives

✔  Going to websites such as and NICHE.

•  If you can afford to, visit as many colleges as you can. For advice about how to do this, go to Visiting Colleges.

•  Finally refine your list, choosing colleges that seem to really match you personally and academically, remembering there there is no shortage of high quality colleges to which high school students can apply, get accepted and be happy.

Six sample college lists can be found here.

What to know

Freshman Year
If you’re ready, it’s never too early to visit colleges as you travel to different cities with your family.

sophomore Year
Start thinking about what you want in a college and stop by/visit colleges when you are in different cities in the U.S.

junior Year

Fall Semester
Ideally, this is the time to put together your first college list, so that you can use the rest of junior year for researching and visiting colleges.

Spring Semester
Continue researching different schools second semester. Don’t forget; Spring Break is a great time to visit colleges. Before the end of the year, share your college list with your high school counselor and get his/her comments and feedback

Summer Before Senior Year
Narrow down your college list to 15-20 colleges.

senior Year
Before school starts, or right after, finalize your college list and cut it down to 8-12 colleges, put into the categories of Reach, Good chance and Pretty Sure Thing.


When to do it

It’s so easy for parents to get either under or over-involved with their child’s college list. Both extremes have their negative consequences. A balanced approach is:

✔  “Be there” for your child

✔  Identify, collect and provide information and resources about different colleges

✔  Purchase college guidebooks

✔  Encourage and support college visits

✔  Help your student think through what characteristics he/she needs and wants

Rather than focus on college rankings, encourage your child to identify colleges where there is a good fit. It’s so easy for parents to fall into the trap of thinking that the best college for their kid is a high prestige college, rather than one that matches him or her as a student and person. Be aware that many colleges beyond the Ivies and other superstar schools have better records for getting their undergraduates into graduate schools and into good jobs.

As one parent said, “I’ve learned that no matter how strongly I feel about a college, the most effective thing to do is be low key in what I say AND SOMETIMES SAY NOTHING AT ALL. After all, this is my daughter’s life, not mine. The real question is how to help her choose a school where she will be happy and thrive.”

by Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz
Excerpted from adMISSION POSSIBLE® (Sourcebooks, Inc, April 2012)

If you want to know more about this and other admissions topics, read
Getting into the Best Colleges for you
. Order it here!



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