Last updated July 6, 2023
How to Make the Perfect College List
Feeling intimidated by your school list? Not sure where to start? You're in the right place. Building the perfect college list requires a lot of research into school types, offerings, and statistics of admitted students. You'll need to think critically (and honestly) about when to dream and when to play it safe.
One of the most important (and overwhelming) steps in the college application process is deciding what colleges you want to apply to.
While school lists may seem pretty straightforward at first, there is actually a lot at stake when choosing what schools to put on your list.
You have to think about everything from acceptance rates to average career outcomes.
Putting the wrong schools on your list can decrease the number of college options you have. Aim too high, and you might end up with nowhere to go in the fall. Aim too low, and you might sell yourself short.
Finding your personal sweet spot is what admissions professionals like to refer to as a “balanced” college list.
In this guide, we explain how to create a college list that is perfect for you.
Let’s get into it.
What is a college list?
A “college list” is the list of colleges you want to apply to.
Simple enough. Or is it?
Applying to college is stressful. Your college list needs to be strategic and balanced so that no matter your admissions outcomes, you’ll still have good options in the spring.
So what does finding strategic balance actually mean?
It means that you create a list of colleges that meets multiple criteria.
Your school list should…
a) reflect your wants, goals, and values.
b) be realistic about your chances of admission.
c) contain only schools you’d be interested in attending.
If your school list doesn’t meet each of these goals, then you need to keep researching.
Sifting through thousands of college options takes time, but doing thorough school research will help you find the best mutual fit.
Let’s go through a couple of cautionary tales.
Student 1 spends all fall toiling over her college applications. She shoots for the moon and only applies to Ivy League and T20 institutions. She has a great academic record, so she figures an Ivy will be the perfect fit. The T20s, she reasons, can be her fallback options.
Student 2 knows how competitive the top schools in the country are. Although he has a solid GPA, excellent test scores, and national recognition in band, he decides to play it safe. He only applies to five schools, each of which has an acceptance rate above 50%.
Fast forward to spring.
Student 1, whose application was impressive but not spectacular, has been rejected from every school she applied to.
Student 2, on the other hand, was accepted everywhere he applied but isn’t ultimately happy with his options.
They both regret how they built their school lists.
Don’t be like them.
Instead, focus on creating a robust school list that covers all your bases.
What should I look for in colleges?
What kind of school is it? A highly selective private university? A large state school? A small liberal arts college?
Different school types have different kinds of campus atmospheres, classroom dynamics, undergraduate opportunities, alumni networks, and more.
Identifying a school’s type is the first thing you should look for. Once you have an idea of how the types differ from each other, you’ll start to get a sense of which you’re most drawn towards.
Colleges can range from under 1,000 students to more than 50,000 students.
As you can imagine, going to a school with 1,300 students is a very different experience from attending one with 23,000.
A quick google search will tell you how many students go to a school.
Remember that the size of the student body has ripple effects. Fewer students usually means smaller classes and more access to professors, while more students often means that there are more school resources overall.
If you don’t yet know what size school you want to go to, feel free to fill your list with multiple options. As you progress in your research, you can use virtual and in-person campus visits to get a sense of what you prefer.
Where is the school? How far away is it from where you currently live? Is it in a city, suburb, or rural area? How easy is it to get to? Do most students live on campus or off? What is there to do off campus? What’s the weather like?
Wherever you go to school, you’ll presumably have to live there for four years. Make sure that the location, not just the school itself, is also something you can handle for the foreseeable future.
While your primary focus should be on assessing whether the school itself is a good fit, it’s important not to discount the location. Being in a place you don’t want to be can make it hard to succeed in college, so finding the balance of good school fit + good location fit = personal happiness and student success.
The schools you’re looking at should (obviously!) have the major you’re interested in studying.
But your school list doesn’t have to include only the schools that are ranked highest in the nation for your path of study. There should be a mix of highly-ranked schools with lesser-known schools that still offer amazing teaching quality.
Also know that about one-third of bachelor’s degree-seeking students change their major at least once, with 1 in 10 changing it more than once. So you should find schools that can cater to your major interests, but don’t be afraid to look at their other offerings as well.
And if you’re undecided, take stock of what options you would have and look into campus resources (like advising programs) that help students pick a path of study.
Different schools also have different ways of structuring classrooms.
At some schools, PhD-holding professors are the only ones who teach classes. At other schools, some classes are taught by graduate students who are in the process of earning their MA or PhD degrees. This distinction may or may not matter to you, but it’s helpful to be aware of.
Some schools prioritize lecture-style classes, while others offer mostly discussion-based classes. At some schools, students have more access to institutional resources like research labs.
No one setup is necessarily better than another, but familiarizing yourself with the options and figuring out what you’d prefer is an important part of school research and school list building.
Average stats of accepted students
Schools often advertise the average GPA and standardized test scores of their applicants. These statistics can give you a sense of where your own statistics fall in relation to the pool of other students who are applying to the same school.
Having these numbers on hand can help you identify what schools you are more or less likely to be admitted to.
Let’s say you have a 4.0 unweighted GPA and a 35 ACT score. Let’s also say that you want to apply to a school whose average unweighted GPA is a 4.0 and middle 50% ACT score is 34-36. That’s great! Your stats seem competitive.
But wait—what if that school also has a 5% acceptance rate?
Sadly, the low acceptance rate means that even though your academic background makes you a competitive applicant, your chances of being admitted are still slim.
Instead of letting this information scare you, let it empower you to craft a thoughtful school list with lots of good (and more realistic) options.
Cost & financial aid
And last but not least: financial aid. For many students, this category is one of the most important.
Different schools offer different kinds of financial aid.
Some schools only give you what is called “need-based aid,” which takes your family’s financial situation into account.
Other schools offer “merit aid,” which is awarded based on your performance in high school.
Financial aid packages can consist of loans, which you will be expected to pay back, and grants or scholarships, which you do not have to pay back.
Financial aid can seem overwhelming at first, but taking the time to look into what aid you’d be eligible for at different institutions will pay off in the long run.
The Four Types of Colleges
The number one thing you should look for in colleges is the type of college because what kind of school you go to greatly impacts your educational experience. There are four main kinds of colleges for you to choose between. Of course, there are also other kinds (like art or design schools), but most students will be choosing one of these four institution types.
Highly-Selective Private Institutions
These schools are the ones that immediately come to mind when you think of elite college admissions—the Harvards, Princetons, Dukes, and Vanderbilts of the world.
They are highly selective because they are highly rejective. In other words, they deny the majority of their applicants.
With acceptance rates below 10%, getting into one of these schools is a big deal. That’s why they’re so sought after (and why their acceptance rates keep getting lower and lower).
Highly-selective schools have big endowments that offer a lot of student support in things like financial aid packages, campus facilities, and student research. Professors (and graduate students) at these schools are often at the top of their fields, so you get to learn from cutting-edge researchers.
So are there any cons to highly-selective private schools?
Besides the scary low acceptance rates, there are a few reasons why you may find a better fit elsewhere.
Some students may not thrive in the more competitive environments that often characterize private highly-selective schools. While they can be some of the cheapest options for students under a certain income bracket, other students may find them to be expensive. And, finally, some students who are accepted to a highly-selective school may go just because of the prestige, not because it’s the best individual fit.
Large State Schools
Large state schools are (as the name implies) large public universities. They are “public” because they receive state funding. There are lower tuition rates for students who are residents of the state that funds them and higher tuition rates for students who come from other states.
Acceptance rates and social perception of large state schools can vary drastically. While some schools are relatively unknown and easy to get into, others can be as highly regarded as highly-selective private schools (some of the UCs, University of Michigan, UT Austin, and University of Wisconsin-Madison, just to name a few).
Some students are drawn to large state schools because of their lower cost. Other students like the hustle and bustle of a bigger student population, the school spirit and college sports, and the plethora of publicly-funded educational facilities and resources.
There are a few reasons students might opt not to go to a large state school. Large class sizes can make it challenging (though not impossible) to form connections with professors. Sometimes students have limited contact with PhD-holding professors because many classes and discussion sections are taught by graduate students. And some undergrads may also feel like they’re competing with graduate students for research opportunities.
Another important feature of large state schools are honors colleges. Honors colleges often have their own application process, and their admission criteria and average statistics tend to be more competitive than the rest of the university. Honors colleges admit smaller cohorts of students, have smaller class sizes, and have a greater emphasis on academic rigor. Students who find large state schools too large and anonymous may find a happy medium in honors colleges, so don’t forget to consider them for your school list.
Liberal Arts Colleges
Liberal arts colleges, sometimes called small liberal arts colleges (or LACs or SLACs), are small by design.
They typically have under 5,000 students and boast low student-to-faculty ratios. Classes tend to be smaller and more discussion based. There’s an educational emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, and LACs also tend to value experiential opportunities like research, internships, and study abroad.
With small student bodies, liberal arts colleges also tend to be residential, meaning a good percentage of students live on campus. There may even be one- to two-year live-on requirements. Sometimes liberal arts colleges are in great locations, and other times they’re situated in more rural areas without much to do off campus.
While some students may find liberal arts college communities too small or stifling, other students thrive in the more close-knit environment. Since there are fewer students per professor, students can have an easier time connecting with faculty members and getting research experience.
Community colleges range in size. Whereas the previous three kinds of institutions are called “four-year colleges and universities,” community colleges typically award two-year degrees called associate degrees. They are also places where people earn technical degrees or certificates.
There typically isn’t campus housing, so the campus community is different from schools where students do live on campus. Faculty at community colleges usually have MA or PhD degrees, and class sizes really depend. There isn’t as much opportunity for research or collaboration with faculty as there is at four-year universities.
Students are often drawn to community colleges for their accessible admissions and cheaper price tags. With a few exceptions, almost all people with a high school degree can get into a community college. Some students opt to pursue an associate degree at a community college before transferring to a four-year college to save money. This option is especially good for students who don’t really know what they want to study for their bachelor's degree.
Now that you have an overview of the main school types, it’s time to get to researching. The next section will walk you through a few helpful research tips.
How to do college research
Okay, now that you know all the information you need to look for, let’s talk about how to actually find it.
There are several places for you to focus your school research.
Websites like Niche.com or the Admit Report Data Room make it easy to filter and sort through the wide variety of colleges in the country. Spend some time browsing, messing around with search filters, and clicking through different schools. As you go, add schools that look promising to your list. You can pare your list down later.
School websites should be the second stop in your college research journey. Because schools are giant institutions with lots going on, their websites can sometimes be hard to navigate. Try starting with the admissions page and working your way to more detailed information. A Google search of “school name” + “admissions” (e.g., “University of Washington admissions”) should get you to a good starting place.
Do in-person visits. There’s no better way to assess whether you like a school than to be there in the flesh. If you can, take a campus tour, visit a class, and even do an overnight visit through the admissions office. You’ll notice small cultural details that are impossible to get from a website alone.
Do virtual visits. Especially if you’re looking at colleges far from home, it may not be possible to visit before you apply. But, thankfully, schools now offer more virtual visit options than ever before. Try out a virtual tour, attend a virtual information session, and see if you can chat with someone from the campus community via Zoom.
Mission statements and strategic plans can also give you a bird’s-eye view of what the university envisions its future to look like. Finding institutions whose values and goals align with yours can be a great way to find seamless school fit.
Social media can also give you insight into what student culture is like. Do a deep dive not only on institution-run social media but also on student-run social media (think club Instagram pages, student tour guide TikToks, or student blog posts).
Before you race to Google to start searching, we need to explain the final (and most important) part of school list building. The next section explains why and how you should break up your school list by reach, target, and safety categories.
Building your school list by chance of admission
The reality is that college admissions gets more unpredictable every year.
While we want you to dream big, you also need to be realistic and practical as you put together your school list. The key to striking that balance is finding the reach, target, and safety schools that make the most sense for you.
What is a reach school?
A “reach” school is one that you’re not very likely to be admitted to.
Ivy League and T20 institutions typically all fall into this category no matter how good your statistics (like GPA or standardized test scores) are because of their mega-low acceptance rates.
Other schools count as “reach” schools if your statistics are below average for the applicant pool.
You can apply to as many reach schools as you want, but you might be limited by factors like time and application fees. As a general warning: don’t spend too much time or money on schools that you’re unlikely to be accepted to.
Why should I have reach schools?
A better question: why not?
While we always recommend a cautious approach to college admissions, it’s also important to set big goals.
Few feelings are more rewarding than opening an acceptance letter from a school you didn’t think you’d get into.
As long as you’re being realistic about your low probability of admission and still applying to schools with an eye toward fit, there’s no harm in taking a chance on yourself.
How do I choose reach schools?
Unless you have the extra time and resources, applying to all the highly selective schools you can think of is probably not your best bet.
Doing that is actually likely to decrease your chances of admission because you’d spend less time on each application.
Instead, you’ll need to research the schools like you would research any other school.
Do website deep dives, read mission statements, and interact with the admissions offices. Find the schools that best align with your goals, values, and experiences.
If you find the highly-selective schools for which you are genuinely a good fit, you’ll have an easier time making a case for your admission. The admission officer will more clearly see the logical connection between you and the school and may be more likely (though still quite unlikely) to admit you.
Reaches are for dreaming. But college admissions isn’t known for making everyone’s dreams come true, so you need some more realistic options, too.
Enter: target schools.
What is a target school?
“Target” schools are schools that you have a reasonable (but not guaranteed!) chance of being admitted to. Your GPA and standardized test scores fall within the average or middle 50%, the school’s acceptance rate is more reasonable, and the school seems like an overall good fit.
You should have around 3+ target schools, depending on how safe your school list is.
In college admissions as in life, everything is unpredictable. That includes school list building. There is no strict definition of a “target” school. It all depends on context—on your academic background, your extracurricular accomplishments, and the evaluation criteria of the schools you’re applying to.
But in general, when you look for target schools, you should be looking for schools with 50%+ acceptance rates where you fall within or above the middle 50% GPA and standardized test ranges.
Why should I have target schools?
Target schools are the middle ground between improbable reach schools and too-easy safeties.
They give you the best of both worlds: a true possibility of admission and the prestige of relatively high rankings.
Your target schools are the meat and potatoes of your school list. They’re “target” schools because they’re the ones you’re really gunning for.
Think about it like this: even if you’re the star of your high school track team, it’s unlikely that you’d beat Usain Bolt in a race. That would be a reach. But the star of your rival high school’s track team? You just might be able to beat them. There’s a chance you won’t, but you’re ready for the challenge. They’re your target school.
How do I choose target schools?
Target schools are where you should focus a good deal of your effort.
Because your chances of admission are more realistic than reaches, target schools offer an opportunity for you to really show off your skills and school fit.
You should therefore choose target schools based on how you hold up against their average statistics. Look for schools where you’re within or above the middle 50%.
Also keep an eye on how well your background aligns with the school’s offerings and values. When you find the right fit, admissions officers will be able to say, “Wow, they really belong here.”
What is a safety school?
A “safety” school is a school at which you’d likely be a shoo-in. Your stats are well above the average, and the school admits the majority of its applicants. You can also think of safety schools as “likely schools”—schools where you’re very likely to be admitted.
Again, you should have about 3+ schools that are true, solid safeties.
And yet again, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to defining safeties. But if a school has a 70+% acceptance rate and your GPA and standardized test scores fall above the middle 50%, you might consider it a safer option.
Why should I have safety schools?
You need safety schools. More specifically, you need good safety schools. And you need safety schools that are actually safeties (not just targets or reaches masquerading as safeties).
Here’s the thing: you need to choose safeties that you actually want to go to and can actually get into. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, there’s no use in applying to a school you’d hate being at just because you have a good chance of getting in. And there’s no use in having a school on your “safety” list if it’s not really a safety for you.
Your safeties are a fallback if your reach and target schools don’t go according to plan, but that doesn’t mean that they have to necessarily be second choices.
For example, they might be lower-ranked schools that you think you’d really enjoy being at. They might be a little closer to home. Or maybe they’re also financial aid safety schools—ones that you can both get into and afford.
Safety schools give you options, and it’s good to have good options.
How do I choose safety schools?
Choose safeties that offer everything you want in a college. Our favorite trick is to use undergraduate teaching quality to find safeties that will allow you to make the most of your educational experience.
Look up other rankings, too. You might think about post-grad job opportunities in a specific area. If you want to be part of the Seattle tech scene, for example, then you might look for schools near Seattle. You can also think about schools that count as safeties but are also highly-rated in your area of study.
Whatever you decide, choose safeties that you are excited about.
Finally, here’s a big sidenote about college majors.
Admission stats vary by major. For schools that admit by major or program, certain majors or programs may have more competitive acceptance rates or average statistics. Pay attention to these differences.
For competitive majors like computer science, for example, your list should contain even more of a buffer. A regular admission safety may not be a computer science safety. Focus on finding quality, realistic safeties and targets rather than focusing all your energy on your reaches.
How big should my college list be?
The Common Application maxes out at 20 schools. Some students apply to even more than that. Some people apply to only 1 institution. School lists can vary drastically depending on the wants, needs, and experiences of the student applying.
But a good rule of thumb is to apply to around 10 schools.
There’s no magic number, but 10(ish) schools is a good balance. It’s enough to give you good options, but not so many that you’ll run out of time to complete them.
A list of 10 also lets you apply to several schools in your reach, target, and safety categories.
Whether you apply to more or fewer schools depends on a few factors:
a) Time: Even with application systems like Common App and Coalition, every single school you add to your list will add additional work for you to do. If you have too many schools on your list, there’s a good chance that you’ll submit subpar applications just because you run out of time.
b) Money: Many colleges still require application fees. This means that you’ll have to pay a non-refundable fee before you can even apply to a college. Some students receive fee waivers, so they don’t have to pay these fees (check to see if you’re one of them!), but many students do. Application fees add up quickly, so don’t forget to take them into account when building your school list.
c) Preferences: If you’re aiming for the most prestigious school possible, you’ll probably need to bake more options into your school list. Of course, applying to too many might decrease your chances of admission to a single one, but having a couple more options usually doesn’t hurt (as long as you still have solid targets and safeties in place).
If you have a clear idea of where you want to go and have been very thoughtful with your reaches and safeties, then 8 schools might be sufficient. Alternatively, if you still aren’t sure what kind of school you want to go to (a liberal arts college versus a large state school, for example), then your list might be a little bigger.
The bottom line on school list size is that your list should include enough schools to give you options but not so many schools that your application quality goes down.
School list building is no easy task. You have to juggle multiple (and sometimes competing) factors, and you have to genuinely reflect on what kind of environment you’ll be most successful in.
Hopefully this guide has given you some actionable advice to make your school list building process a little easier.
But before you go, we want to leave you with two key takeaways.
While a little somber, these takeaways offer realistic advice that will make your springtime a lot easier.
1) There are no guarantees in college admissions
Applying to college is not easy. There are no guarantees in college admissions.
For a college list to be truly bulletproof, students and parents need to come to grips with the reality of applying to college today. That is—it's really, really hard.
It doesn't help that students tend to be aspirational when they think about their college futures. It's common knowledge that everyone should create a list that has "safeties," "targets," and "reaches." But applicants and their families often take extreme liberty in defining these buckets—often to their disadvantage.
Specifically, they do three things:
- Lack of creativity: They show little creativity with their "reach" choices. The same schools—often Ivy League or so-called potted ivies—appear over and over again. And statistically speaking, for most students, these are not really "reaches," but "impossible reaches."
- Too much optimism: They are too optimistic when choosing "target" schools. They look at school acceptance rates, GPA and test score medians, and choose schools which are not true targets, but closer to reaches.
- Over-confidence in safeties: They are too confident in their safeties, treating them as given acceptances. This results in riskier school lists that have too few true safeties.
These three tendencies lead to extremely top-heavy lists with too few safeties, too many "impossible reach" picks, and a narrow band of ambitious "targets" that may or may not be dependable picks.
Given that acceptance rates across the board have gone down precipitously, this process of "expectation inflation" can have disastrous effects.
Aspirational lists guarantee one thing: numerous rejections.
Rejections, in turn, lead to nail-biting and anxiety-ridden decision periods. It happens every time.
The best way to counteract expectation inflation is to adopt a healthy attitude of proactive pessimism.
Proactive pessimism does NOT mean proactively throwing in the towel and shipping your applications on the last night before they're due.
2) Be proactive & cautious
Instead, proactive pessimism means building a college list around the assumption that if something can go wrong, it will. If you're evaluating a target school and see that your test scores and GPA place you in the 58th percentile of accepted applicants, don't think about that as a banked W.
What if everything went wrong? Do you have a rock-bottom school that anchors your list? A school that would never reject you?
Essentially, I push my students to seek a higher margin of confidence in each of their three school choice bands.
That means less risky reaches, easier targets, and safer safeties. It also means more acceptances and a lot of avoided anxiety, fights, and sadness.
Let these words of caution empower you to build a list that best serves you. The goal of your school list, after all, is to give you as many options as possible that you can be excited about.
Now go forth and build your list! With our guides on the most important college topics and our Essay Academy course, we’ll be here to help when you’re ready to start your applications.
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