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How to Build a College List From the Ground Up

I love a great college list. Whether an initial or final draft, a college list holds a magical promise for the future.

In my roles as a college counselor—first in independent schools and now at Application Nation—the pressure has always been great. I want every student’s list to connect who they are now with who they hope to be. Now, I am helping my sophomore son build his list, and a list for my own child offers a particular challenge. My main focus: building his list from the ground up.

So far, we have spent the last few months doing the following:

1. Critiquing his transcript.

He is young. He has yet to take standardized tests. A lot will still change. But there are trends already visible. The rigor of his coursework within his high school’s offerings, his grades and GPA, his junior year course requests, and anticipated senior year courses. These details create an objective profile to guide which schools are currently his likelies (where he is above the school’s admitted student profile), targets (where he is right at the school’s admitted student profile), and reaches (where he is at profile but acceptance is highly competitive).

2. Discussing where he thrives.

What environments encourage him to do his best work? Does he like being in the middle of the pack? Or does being at the front or the back inspire him? Does he prefer a competitive, collaborative, or independent environment? His personality helped eliminate some schools and confirm others.

3. Sharing our family’s college budget.

Then, I guided him through a few net price calculators. I picked schools he "knows," including a liberal arts college in our neighborhood. I added a “need blind” school, one that has historically offered generous merit, public flagships in and out of state, and a private university. As we ran numbers, he began to understand which types of schools would fit our family's resources.

RELATED READING: 3 Financial Aid Terms Every Family Should Know

4. Defining his current non-negotiables.

Size, setting, geographic location, and weather were all debated. I added a few questions to consider, like guaranteed on-campus housing and transportation options. 

5. Exploring extracurriculars.

He hopes to run in college. Fortunately, cross-country has strict cut-off times, making it easy to find objective possibilities. We compared his stats against the recruit, walk-on, and try-out times across a few leagues and schools within them.  

6. Crafting his initial list of about twenty-five schools.

I stacked it. The list includes only three schools that count as "reaches" based on his current profile. The rest are evenly split between likely and target colleges. Again, a lot can change—his objective profile and college selectivity levels. In just this last admissions cycle, a handful of schools morphed quickly from "selective" to "very selective," and even to "highly selective." What is currently a target could be a reach by the time he applies.

READ MORE: Don't Make This Mistake With Your College List

7. Researching and visiting.

When he has a few minutes, he watches on-demand virtual info sessions or tours, reads guidebook descriptions, or reviews college websites, jotting notes as he goes. Nothing extensive, just a quick sense of what appeals or doesn't—programs, signature opportunities, whatever catches his eye. 


FREE DOWNLOAD: The College Visit Worksheet

Recently, I took him to his first campus tour and information session. My only parameter for the first school he would visit: to be a "likely on all fronts." Academic. Financial. Extracurricular. Why? I want him to love every school on his final list. It is easy to love the reaches. By first looking at the likelies and targets and finding what makes them fit (or not), he is better poised to find schools across selectivity levels where he might thrive. 

If his profile (or a school's selectivity level) changes over the next few semesters, he is not forced to eliminate schools because they are now out of reach. And many highly selective colleges do not track demonstrated interest, while colleges with more generous acceptances tend to care about this. We are prioritizing the ones where visits matter. 

We will soon visit another likely with a different focus and environment. We are building my son's list from the ground up. Likelies, targets, and eventually, reaches. By his senior year, he should have 9-12 schools that he loves, balanced across selectivity levels, that might just love him back.