How To: Build Your College List

Photograph of a young woman contemplating college options and build their college list.

Source: Flickr user quinnanya

Starting to build your college list can be confusing. Some students start by putting down the names of colleges they know. Others ask for suggestions from people they trust. However, without knowing much about the colleges, those might not be the best way to build your college list.

College is a huge investment in time and money. Even if colleges with brand-names have a great reputation, or are well know for its sports teams, it might not be the college for you. The best way to build your college list is to do research. By researching, students will have a better chance of finding a college that is a good fit for them. These four steps will help you build your college list.

1. Get to know yourself, put together a list of wants and must-haves

That’s right, the first thing you need to do when building your college list is to get to know yourself and what you want in a college. When considering your preferences, be honest about what is important to you. You want a college that’s the right fit for you.

    • Location – What locations are you willing to consider? Think about distance from home, weather, and possible opportunities in the area. In what areas will you feel most comfortable?
    • Location type – Do you want a college that is in an urban, suburban or rural setting?
    • Major – What’s your intended major? If you don’t know exactly what you want to study, are there subjects that you are learning towards?
    • Extracurricular activities – Are there specific extracurricular activities that are important to you?
    • Athletics – Do you want to be a college athlete and compete competitively for the college? What division will you consider? If you don’t want to participate competitively, do you want to play in a specific intramural sport?
    • Religious affiliation – Do you want to attend a religious college?
    • Student population size – Do you want to go to a college that is the size of your high school or the size of a city? Or, somewhere in the middle?
    • Other things you want or need – What else is important to you in a college? A gym or fitness center? A strong career center? Whatever it is that is important to you, add it to the list.

Take your time as you are thinking about your preferences. It is also okay for your preferences to change as you get to know yourself. Keep this list close to you as you are researching colleges and do your best to find colleges that meet all of your preferences.

2. Compile the BIG college list (10-20 colleges)

After you get to know yourself and what you are looking for in a college, you can start doing your initial research. This list can be quite large depending on your preferences, and that is okay.

Here are a few resources to use when creating your first draft of your college list:

  • College counselors – Talk to your school counselor or your independent college counselor. They have a lot of knowledge about colleges and can provide good recommendations based on what you are looking for in a college.
  • College search tools – College Raptor has a great college match feature. Just put in your preferences and the tool will give you a list of colleges that offer the things you want in a college.

3. Research, narrow down your college list (8-15 colleges)

Now that you have your big list, start researching the colleges on your list. As you start researching, you’ll find things that make you like some colleges more and other colleges less. Take notes and keep editing your college list as you discover more information.

Here are some ways to learn more about colleges:

    • Review college websites
    • Sign up to receive more information from the colleges
    • Attend college fairs and talk to admissions representatives
    • Attend college presentations at your school
    • Contact admissions officers and ask questions
    • Visit college campuses
    • Talk to current students

4. Categorize, prioritize your college list (6-10 colleges)

As you learn more about the colleges on your list, make changes until you can narrow down to the final number of colleges you will apply to. There is no magic number of colleges you should apply to, but the majority of experts suggest between six and ten colleges.

balanced college list

Example of a balanced college list, created using College Raptor’s match tool.

I recommend students apply to a few types of colleges, or build a balanced list:

    • 1-3 Reach schools – A reach school is one that you have a chance of being admitted, but it may be difficult. There is no rule that you must apply to a reach school, but if there is one that you really like, go for it! For highly selective schools (colleges with low acceptances rates), they should always be considered a reach school because even students with perfect grades and test scores might not be accepted.
    • 4+ Match schools – A match school is a college that you are likely to be admitted.
    • 1-2 Safety schools – A safety school is a college that you will almost certainly be admitted. Do not pick a safety school just to have one on your list. Instead, find a college that you truly like and can envision yourself attending in the future.

If you are having a hard time determining what category a college is for you, check out your college match list on College Raptor. In addition to giving you a list of colleges that meet your preferences, the list will also tell you the likelihood of being admitted, and help to categorize those colleges based on your odds.

Your college list is going to continue changing, and that is okay. Do your research so that you will find the colleges that feel right for you.