7 Mistakes Students Make When Building Their College List

It’s that time of the year: Summer is here. Rising seniors are starting to feel the pressure of building their college list of where they’d like to apply. Of course, this college list probably won’t be finalized for months, but that doesn’t make the process any less intimidating.

Where do you start? How do you know which schools are “right” for you?

Every student will have to go through the process in their own way. It may also take some trial and error.

But, luckily for you, students have been going through this process for long enough that there are some clear goof-ups you can watch out for to make the whole thing go more smoothly and to help you end up with the best college options for you.

Avoid these common mistakes while building your college list:

A high school student sitting with their laptop, looking frustrated.

1. Scared away from all “expensive” colleges

The cost of college is scary–there’s no doubt about it. Some schools have over a $50,000 annual price tag. It’s easy to see why most students automatically run toward the “more affordable” options.

But, don’t let the “sticker price” of a college–what’s published on their website–scare you away.

Many of these expensive colleges offer generous scholarships and grants for all different kinds of students (not just the top-tier scholars or athletes). And, in many cases, the net cost will actually end up being less than schools with a lower price tag.

Estimate how much financial aid you’ll receive from each school (not all colleges offer the same financial aid!), which will give you your net price–or, your actual costs after scholarships and grants.

2. Narrowing down your options too quickly

As a student, it’s easy to think that you know exactly what you’re looking for in a college.

You probably already have an idea: Small, liberal arts college, with a good lacrosse team.

Your search just got a lot easier, right?

Well, how do you know that it’s actually what’s right for you? Have you ever attended–or even visited–a large research university to see how it feels?

“Feel” is a really important part of the college process. Students who explore their options tend to have much better outcomes when it comes to finding the right size college.

You may begin by thinking that you want the intimacy of a small college, only to discover that you might be able to get better amenities or more mentorship or career-placement opportunities by going to a big university. Or, you may find that the amenities you were seeking at a large university can also be found at smaller schools.

Either way, you need to explore your options. Visit as many different types of college campuses as you can. Take careful note of what appeals to you about each one. Can you find a list of schools that offers everything you’re looking for? It may not be as difficult as you think.

Even if you explore other options and end up coming back to your original preference, you’ll only feel more confident about your choice. You know that you considered other kinds of schools and ultimately made a conscious decision about which size and type of institution was best for you.

3. Applying to only highly-selective colleges

If you’re a student that has dreams of the Ivy League, that’s great. But, don’t let those dreams cloud the reality of just how difficult it can be to get into many of these schools.

Even if you are a stellar student, your chances of getting into Harvard or Yale still amount to practically a lottery ticket. These schools accept just 5 or 6% of students each year. That means that they reject thousands of applicants every year with nearly perfect grades and test scores.

This isn’t meant to discourage you from applying to these schools. You should definitely still apply if it’s where you want to attend. But, don’t build your list entirely around these super-selective schools without having other options.

You probably know that you should apply to a “safety” school that you fit, where you’re pretty much guaranteed to be admitted, but don’t just have a single fall-back option, where you may not be happy anyway.

Instead, when you create your list, you should choose a range of options. Base it on selectivity and your likelihood to be admitted. If you’re aiming for the most selective colleges, include some schools that fall between “elite” and “safety” to create a full spectrum of options. In many cases, these schools are likely to be nearly as rigorous and prestigious as your top-tier choices, without being quite as selective.

In the end, even if you don’t get into your dream school, you’re more likely to be happy at a school that is at least close to that level, rather than being forced to attend the only college where you were admitted.

So, don’t just apply to 5 Ivy League schools and one “safety”. Instead, consider applying to a range of colleges, so you have a number of options to choose from when the acceptance letters come in the mail.

4. Being scared of selective colleges

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have students building their college list who are so terrified by selective institutions that they don’t even apply.

As a student, you shouldn’t necessarily feel compelled to go to a selective institution. After all, the Ivy League is not right for everyone. But, you also shouldn’t let the fear of rejection limit your options.

Push yourself to explore colleges and apply to any school you think will be a good fit, regardless of how selective it may be. Even if it’s a long shot, you’ll feel better for taking a chance and applying than to always wonder if you could have been accepted.

Do remember, though, that you don’t necessarily need to go to the most-selective institution where you’re accepted. You should go to the school that fits your needs and “feels” right.

5. Never even creating a list of options

It’s all too easy to look around at the colleges you’re familiar with and just choose one or two where you’ll apply.

It’s also easy to say things like, “my father/uncle/cousin went to X College and they really liked it–so that’s where I’m going as well.”

Either of these methods relies on a lot of assumptions about college that may not be true. A college that was a good fit for your uncle may not be a good fit for you.

No matter how you slice this one, you shouldn’t bypass the process of creating a list. Although it can be intimidating and confusing at times, exploring your options to find what is best for you (not someone else) is really critical. It makes a huge difference once you make your choice and enroll.

6. Confusing “applying” with “attending”

There’s no doubt that you should narrow down your list of schools before you start to send out applications. (Unless you can afford to spend $50-150 application fees to 20+ schools.)

But, don’t feel like you can only apply to your few absolute top choices.

You should definitely apply to schools that you would be happy to attend. However, don’t apply thinking that you’re obligated to enroll if you’re accepted.

This idea can paralyze some students, who are scared to send applications to the “wrong” schools. It’s important to remember that during the application process, you’re only applying to the schools that you’re interested in attending, but not committed to any particular college (unless you apply early decision, in which case you may be committing).

So, don’t feel the need to narrow down your list to just the bare minimum number of schools if you’re still considering a number of options that may be right for you. Apply to as many schools as seems reasonable. You need to feel like you will have a good range of options in the spring.

7. Only looking locally

Unfortunately, many students building their college list pick a school based on something as simple as where it’s located. It makes sense. You’re more likely to know the colleges in your area. You may not feel comfortable moving too far from home.

For some students, this works out perfectly. But, for other students, limiting their search means that they don’t really find a school that’s a good fit.

So, it’s totally fine for you to go to a school that’s close to home. But it’s important to explore your other options to find the right fit. You may be surprised to discover that your dream school is actually located halfway across the country. Convincing your mom that it’s a good idea for you to move away is another discussion entirely.

Students building their college list may feel anxious now. Instead of anxiety, hopefully, you can use this list as a way to remind yourself that you have so many options. And, you’re in control!

Finding the right college is really about finding yourself, discovering what’s important to you, and learning how to make it happen.

Happy searching!

One thought on “7 Mistakes Students Make When Building Their College List”

  1. Mark says:

    When I went to college, I didn’t make a list of possible schools. Heck, I don’t think I even had a choice – my mom basically showed me the college I would be attending and that was that.

    Yikes, right? Don’t let that happen to you :). The school wasn’t bad or anything but it would have been nice to have had some say in where I went. It’s YOUR future after all, not your parents’.

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