College Prep: 3 Tips for Building a Balanced College List

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Finding the best college for you begins with self-discovery—getting to know yourself, your interests, your goals, and what’s most important. The following three steps will get you started on building and honing a college list.

1. Know yourself.

Intellectual? Nonconformist? Athlete? Writer? Engineer? Which is you? How does knowing the answer help you identify the perfect school for you? Finding the perfect school may seem like an overwhelming task, but if you start with one small step and continue to move, you will soon see the path leading to your college choice unfold—one decision at a time. More often than not, the process consists of a series of decisions rather than one immediate, single choice. So, relax, engage, and assess carefully.

In the beginning of the journey, it can be easier to identify what you definitely don’t want. Your research may begin with, “No, no, and definitely not!” But as you identify your needs, interests, and preferences, the decisions will soon become positive. It won’t be long before you’ve identified a list of schools based on your preferences for: academic programs, geographic location, athletic teams, community spirit, extracurriculars, creative opportunities, or study abroad/internship prospects, among a host of other specific institutional details.

The college search is full of exciting discoveries some of which may inspire your future educational, cultural, and/or social aspirations. Knowing yourself, what you like, and what is good for you will help you choose the best learning environment for your undergrad years.

2. Do your research.  

Start by making a list of the colleges that you’ve heard about and that seem interesting to you.  Talk to your family and friends about their choices for you and check with your college counselor to review the choices and acceptances of former students. This feedback will give you additional insights on which to reflect.

Clarify what’s important to you and determine the:

  • Program of study that matches your interests and needs
  • Style of instruction that speaks to the way you like to learn
  • Degree of rigor that meets your preparation and ability
  • Community that feels comfortable
  • Environment that values you for who you are and what you do well

After gathering your thoughts, plan a visit, if at all possible, so you can walk around campus. Visit. Visit, visit. (link to other blog: College Visit Checklist: 8 Tips for the Perfect Visit) Local campuses are a good way to start because they help you refine your thinking of what you like and don’t like. Register through the college or university website for an information session/tour. The admissions department will host your appointment so bring plenty of questions about the academic and social life on campus. For schools beyond your geographic reach, take advantage of virtual tours on school websites. As you narrow your college list, you may want to plan campus trips during spring break and the summer months.

While on campus, take notes and begin to develop your list of priorities as they relate to your academic interests, extracurricular activities, and student life. Think carefully about your goals for your undergraduate education and identify the must-haves for your dream school. Check out the school vibe and determine if the school will both challenge and support you.

Consider the following factors:

  • Size
  • Location
  • Academic areas of concentration
  • Majors or pre-professional schools
  • Activities and interests of student body
  • Cost
  • School spirit
  • Religious
  • Diversity
  • Accessibility to transportation
  • Degrees
  • Service opportunities
  • Curriculum
  • Programs abroad
  • Support services
  • Admission requirements
  • Reputation
  • Class size
  • Residential housing options
  • Dining services
  • Career center
  • Alumni support

3. Make good choices.

As you move through the process of identifying your priorities and differentiating the colleges and universities of interest to you, make sure that you review each school’s degree of selectivity so that you can be realistic about your chances of admission. Review each school’s academic requirements on the admission page of the school website. Review the profile of the current freshman class to see if your stats are competitive and if you have a good chance of gaining admission. As you begin to narrow your college list, make sure you have a distribution of schools that include:

  • Reach – schools that make admission uncertain but possible
  • Target – schools that offer a reasonable chance of admission
  • Safety – Schools that are likely to offer a decision to admit

As you balance and finalize your list, make sure that each school has the potential to offer you a challenging and positive experience. Remember that you are in control of your selection, and by doing your college prep homework, you’ll find the right match for you.

Maureen Delaney

Counselor

As a Counselor in Educational Planning, Maureen Delaney considers the strengths and interests of students and helps them to achieve their academic and personal goals. Maureen takes time to establish authentic connections both to students transitioning from high school to college and those advancing from undergraduate to graduate school. As an engaged partner, she identifies each individual’s...

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