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How to Craft a College List

When it comes to creating a college list, we take the long view. College admissions success, to us, is not just about getting accepted. Rather, we want each student to get accepted to schools that are a spectacular fit for them and where, once accepted, they will thrive and graduate. That all starts with the list.

Crafting a good college list begins with research, analysis, and self-reflection. Students need to have clarity about their goals for attending college and know what they are interested in studying. While they don’t need to have decided upon a major, they should be able to articulate some subject areas they’d like to explore. If a school does not offer a program in the area or areas in which a student is interested, it gets cut from the list regardless of any other positive features. If a college makes it beyond that first cut, then a number of other characteristics are assessed to determine if it will meet the social, emotional, and financial needs of that student.

When a list is complete, a student should be able to tell anyone reading it exactly why they want to go to each school on it. Answers like “pretty campus,” “great reputation,” or “my girlfriend is applying there,” are inadequate. Instead, each school should be viewed through a highly personal lens, focused on the student’s individual needs and goals. And in the end, the list should contain only schools the student would be happy to attend.

The leading characteristic of a complete list is balance. Let’s assume that every school on the list has already been vetted for the correct major(s), academic fit, size, location, career counseling, special services, relationship levels with professors, diversity and any other aspects that the student cares about. So far so good. But let’s face it, some schools are more selective than others. Any student who focuses only on highly selective schools, no matter the student’s GPA, scores, activities, and accomplishments, is playing with fire.

Schools that accept under 25% of applicants are simply a crapshoot for everyone. Those who apply already have the numbers, so the admissions folks turn their attention to building a class that meets a unique set of requirements. And there’s no way to know what these are. These are “Reach” schools. Other schools that are defined as “Reach” simply accept students with higher average GPA’s and test scores than an applicant has achieved. Should you have Reach schools on your list? Of course, as long as you feel you could thrive in the competitive environment that comes with that label.

If your GPA and scores fall within the average range for the school in question, it’s called a “Target” school. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you are a shoo-in. Again, there’s no law that says college admissions decision criteria have to be fair or to be available to the public. Still, for these schools, it’s reasonable to feel more confident than a student would about the Reach schools on his list.

Finally, a list should contain “Likely” schools. These are defined as schools at which a student’s GPA and test scores well exceed the average of accepted students. These are not “safety” schools. For a school to be on the list it has to be a school the student would be happy to attend, not a consolation prize.

A balanced list will include roughly equal numbers of schools in each category. A total list should be in the 10-15 school range. A list with many more schools than that usually indicates less in-depth thinking about any one school on the list.

Starting with a good list is key to winding up with “ a sea of yesses” but, more importantly, a wonderful college experience.


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