Last summer, I was in Colorado and getting a shit ton of dms from anxious students about how to create a college list. It’s a daunting task under the best of circumstances, and during a global pandemic, making visiting colleges difficult and even impossible, it can feel overwhelming. One night, I looked up and saw the huge mountain nearby filling up the night sky, and in that moment, it occurred to me that trying to craft a college list might feel a little like climbing that mountain in the dark. You can’t see where you’re going, you could get lost, and you might even stumble. And, I’m here to tell you that’s ok — I’ve had more than my shares of tumbles — on mountains and in life. But we can make it easier if you know the steps to follow — and you take the time to dig in and get to know yourself and what’s important to you.
- Use a Beginner’s Mind
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we all think we know so much about different things. It’s like information overload these days because data is so easily accessible to us, not to mention rumors and advice from friends, teachers, and family. I’m a teacher, so I pride myself on knowing a lot about whatever I’m teaching, whether it’s writing essays, filling out apps, or making college lists, but I know that whenever I approach a meeting — or a post on Facebook or Reddit from someone else involved in admissions in any way — and I don’t acknowledge that I have a lot to learn — then I am missing out and so are my students. I’ve been teaching writing for over 30 years now, and I still learn all the time about approaches to the personal essay and ways to teach it.
And you know what? You might already know a lot about colleges and what your list should look like, but I’d like for you to approach this time as a time to learn more about college admissions, colleges — and yourself. For many college applicants, this is the first time you’ve really sat down and thought about what’s important to you, what you care about, what you worry about, what you want, so approach you — yourself — with an open mind as you explore this crazy, exciting, fascinating world of college admissions and your college list.
2. Forget about “The Dream School”
I know. You’ve heard me say this again and again — and again. And you’ll keep me hearing me say it if you hang out around A2C. Find your “Dream You” — Y-O-U, not your Dream U ( just U). Maybe you’ve been taught to “dream big” and “follow your dreams,” and I’m all for that, but instead of focusing on finding the school of your dreams, to me, it’s all about finding the you of your dreams. When you’re drooling over that perfect school with a perfect campus and perfect classes, you’re not dreaming about any one school. Instead, you’re dreaming about who you want to be and where you can become who you want to be — and there isn’t only one Dream School where you can do that. Figure out what is about that certain school that might make you consider it your dream school, and let’s use that to create your list. Your dream isn’t out there in the form of a college; it is in YOU.
3. Consider the Financial Needs for You and Your Family– Use the Net Price Calculator
Get your parents involved here. Have them sit down with you and do the net price calculators for various colleges. You can find that by googling “college name” and “net price calculator” or I’ve also added them to College Vizzy — with net price calculators for over 500 colleges linked from the colleges’ webpages.
Ask yourself and your parents these questions:
- Do you need and qualify for a ton of financial aid?
- Do you need a lot of merit aid because your family makes too much money for financial aid, but you still can’t afford the ridiculous price tags of many colleges?
- Is money not a problem for you?
4. Think about Your Stats — Use the Common Data Set
Be realistic about your stats. Also, be aware that there’s less focus this year on standardized test scores for many colleges, so there’ll be more focus on your grades and course rigor in your core academic classes. Check out the Common Data Set to figure out what some of the college’s institutional needs are. You can find that by googling “college name” and “common data set” or I’ve also added links to the Common Data Set for nearly all the 500 colleges on College Vizzyy. On the Common Data Set, you can also find out about how much weight a college places on your ECs, grades, test scores, LORs, demonstrated interest, and interviews.
5. Think about the School Type that Interests You
Are you looking for:
- an HBCU (Historically Black College or University)?
- a school with lots of diversity or that’s known as a Minority-Serving Institution?
- a college that welcomes LGBTQ+ students (use www.campusprideindex.org)?
- a PWI (Predominantly White Institution)?
- a liberal arts college?
- a women’s college?
- an art school?
- a tech school?
6. Consider Geography and Weather
What part of the country appeals to you? Are you interested in four seasons, or are you a sun-worshipper? Do you hate rainy-cloudy weather? How far away from home would be comfortable for you?
7. Think about the Location
Are you thinking urban? Rural? College town? Enclosed campus? City Campus? How close to an airport, bus station, or train station do you need to be?
8. Think about School Size. Ask Yourself:
- Do I want to know my profs or anonymously slide through at the back of the class?
- Do I want small, intimate, seminar-style classes with lots of conversation, debate, and discussion?
- Or would I prefer large lecture-style classes with a couple of hundred people
- Do I want a mix?
9. Think about the Vibe
Are you looking for rah-rah school spirit? Are you more comfortable with a quirky intellectual vibe? Do you see yourself hanging out with a few friends at the local coffee house? Do you want your weekends filled with parties and football and other athletics? Will you find yourself more often than not studying and at the library?
10. Now It’s Research Time!
If you are interested in a certain major or area, look for colleges that have solid programs in those areas. Reach out to the admissions offices. Reach out to students. Reach out to profs. Ask questions! If you have concerns about how they’ve handled the events of the last year, check out their social media and read their websites to learn more. Learn if they’ve gone test-optional or not if that is a consideration for you.
11. Learn How to Research and Where You Should Go
Books and websites are your friends (here are some of my faves…)
Learn more about colleges with virtual tours:
- Colleges’ own websites, tours, and info sessions
- CollegeVizzy.com (here you can find collegereel, youvisit, the art of college, Youniversity.tv, campustours, and more)
- Instagram and Instagram live
12. Get Organized with a Spreadsheet
I encourage you to put every school that possibly interests you on this initial spreadsheet and then eliminate some as you begin to learn more about the colleges — especially for important factors like programs, price, distance, or weather.
13. Find Your Balance with a Balanced List
YOUR MOST IMPORTANT SCHOOLS ARE:
Your SureFire SureBet School or Schools.
Make sure you have at least one or two SureFire SureBet Schools where you are guaranteed admissions either because:
You are a direct admit or guaranteed admit based on stats.
You’ve already been admitted.
You like the school and can see yourself there.
It’s financially comfortable for your family.
Add a few Lottery Schools if you’re interested
These are schools with an under 25% accept rate, making them a crazy high reach for everyone — no matter how shiny and sparkly your stats, ECs, essays, and LORs are. There are just too many of the amazing yous to fit in this tiny teacup of highly highly rejective colleges
They are schools where your stats are in the bottom half of the class
Finish Up Your List with Likely/Reachyish/Matchy Schools
Schools where your stats are in the top half of the class — maybe even top 75% and they have an acceptance rate over 25-30%
I suggest you end up with 8 – 15 colleges on your list — all places where you can see yourself and that you can potentially afford.
Whew! I’m tired! But, it was well worth it to create a list that includes colleges that you want on your list because of not only what you can offer them, but what they can offer you! Think carefully about why you want to go to any college on your list, and if you can’t come up with specific reasons why (other than some defunct magazine’s rankings), then maybe that school isn’t for you! But, just know that there are dozens more that will fit what you are looking for — as long as you know what you’re looking for! As long as you’re being mindful about what’s important to you and researching and crafting your list with intention, you won’t have too many stumbles along the way. And I’m here — with college suggestions as you begin to dig in and learn what’s important to you!
Some other resources that might be helpful as you create your list:
- Here’s my “How To” Guide to creating a list in a presentation: — with links and resources!
- College Selection Guide from Georgia Tech: Your guide to finding the right college for you
- College Match Self Survey
tl;dr: creating a college list requires figuring out what you’re looking for in a college. spend time thinking about that and then research colleges to find ones that fit your needs. I’ll be happy to help with suggestions once you’ve gotten some thinking done.