How To Build Your College List

Photo of a girl in a mustard yellow jumper sitting down and writing down her college list in a white notebook
November 16, 2022
The Anatomy of an Effective College ListHow to Build Your College List (How to Start) Building Your College List: Factors to ConsiderTake the College Selection QuizTips on Getting Accepted into Your Dream CollegeFAQsBuild Your Future with the Perfect College List


Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/20/22

Unsure of what college to choose? This guide will provide all the information you need on building a college list. 

Looking for a college can be intimidating, but you’ll have a much easier time with a college list. You should start by looking at colleges around your junior year and figure out which ones you think are a good fit for you. 

Once you do your college research, you can build your college list. That way, you will have already built a well-informed college list when you’re ready to start applying. In this guide, you’ll learn how to organize your college list to give yourself a great head-start. 

Read on for everything you need to know about how to make a college list.  

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The Anatomy of an Effective College List

What makes up an effective college list? A well-balanced number of schools in any of the four selectivity categories below. You should learn the differences between each category and organize your college lists accordingly. 

Table outlining your likeliehood of acceptance at Safety, Match, Reach, and Far-Reach schools. The table also outlines how many t Safety, Match, Reach, and Far Reach schools you should apply to

When you’re considering how to make a college list, you should start by finding schools in each category:

If you stick to safety schools, you might miss your chance at a high-level university. If you only list reach schools, you could miss out on college altogether. So, shoot for some top colleges and other universities with higher acceptance rates.

Balancing your list will give you chances at the best education for you. 

How to Build Your College List (How to Start) 

As you can see, there are many questions for you to think about before you build your college list. If you can start early, your future self will thank you for doing most of the work now. Your college application process will go much more smoothly once you have done enough research and reflection to know what you want. 

Here are some ideas for how to build a college list:

Start By Building a College List That Includes Every Option

When you’re thinking about how big your college list should be, it’s a good idea to start with a lot. You’ll narrow it down later. Make a list of 15-20 colleges you would like to attend using your list of wants and needs from above. 

Make Sure Your List Reflects Your Wants and Needs

If you prefer to stay in your home state for financial and social life reasons, check out the colleges in nearby cities. If you prefer to be closer to home but you are open to traveling for a good journalism program, you should look at schools in and around your home state. 

Use college search tools and put in your preferences to list schools that meet your criteria. Your school counselor can also recommend good schools based on what you want. Find out which schools interest you the most and research them further. 

Remember not to add more than 20 colleges to your list. 

Research the colleges on your list and review their websites, and you will start to notice that you like some colleges over others. As you learn more information, you should write down your thoughts and the pros and cons of each school. 

Narrowing Down Your College List

The next step is deciding how to narrow down your college list. You should think about categorizing and prioritizing it. 

Identify some of the most significant factors to you and the opportunities offered by colleges. For example, if prestige and reputation are not that important to you, do not let that be the deciding factor between two or more of your potential schools. 

Visiting a college campus when classes are in session is a great way to decide if a school is right for you. Do you like the atmosphere on campus? It is a good idea to go with your gut. 

Building Your College List: Factors to Consider

While you’re thinking about how to organize your college list, you need to decide which factors are the most important to you. A balanced list should be a good fit for you in academics, social life, post-graduation plans, and finances. It is a good idea to have various colleges to choose from where you can be successful. 

Here are several factors and questions to consider as you get started: 


When you consider your academics, it is good to know where you would like to start your studies. Even if you want to enter as an undecided major, this is still important. Try to narrow down schools based on academics first, regardless of whether or not your area of study is highly specialized. 

If you know your major, you can ask yourself these specific questions:




Social Life 

When deciding on the school’s social fit, you should think about your life on campus. Make a list of what you want and what you do not want. Get a feel for each of the schools that you search. 

Here are some questions you should be asking yourself about what kind of social life you want at college.


Student Body



After School 

The next step in building your college list is to think about your intended path after graduation and whether or not a school can help you achieve those goals. A few of the questions may overlap in the other sections, but you should spend some more time evaluating those factors in particular. 

Career Planning




Another important factor to consider is the financial fit of each school with your or your family’s circumstances. You should set realistic expectations about the costs before narrowing down your college list. Applying to schools that are well outside of your price range may ultimately lead to disappointment. 




When you build your college list, it’s important to put down schools that excite you. There are tons of great schools out there, so you’re bound to find schools that fit your needs!

Take the College Selection Quiz

Take our free and interactive college selection quiz to discover the best schools for you! 

Take a look at some commonly asked college list-creaton FAQs below!

College List FAQs

Still curious about building your college list? Here are some common questions answered? 

1. Is it Too Early to Think about Building a College List?

It is never too early to start thinking about college, and you can even start this process as soon as freshman year if you want. A good rule of thumb is to start building your college list in your junior year and applying to schools soon afterward. 

2. How Big Should My College List Be?

Your longer list should have around 15-20 colleges, but you should narrow it down to about six to ten schools. Those will be the schools you apply to. 

3. Should I Make a College List if I Already Know Where I Want to Go?

Yes, because you should have a plan and multiple backup plans. It is perfectly fine to be set on going to one college. But you should think about what you like about it and find more schools with similar qualities. That way, if you change your mind at any point, you have a few other options to consider. 

4. Do I Have to Know My Major to Build a College List?

No, but it may help you narrow down your choices if you do. You should figure out which subjects you may be interested in, but do not feel pressured to know what exactly you want to study. 

5. Should I Include Ivy League Schools on My College List? 

If you want to attend an Ivy League school, you should put it on the list. Even if it’s a far-reach school for you, it’s worth trying. 

6. What Is the Most Important Considering for My College List? 

That depends on what you’re looking for in a college. Generally, the most important factor is academics since you’re going to college to get a great education. 

Build Your Future with the Perfect College List 

As you may have already figured out, the college application process requires time and hard work. You can make things easier for yourself by starting early and building a well-researched college list. 

The list does not need to be permanent, and you can edit it as many times as you want. It is a good idea to think carefully about what you value the most in a school, whether that deals with your academics, social life, post-college plans, or finances. 

Remember that it is normal for you not to know what career you want to have yet. But you can start by thinking about which schools you can see yourself fitting in well. Now that you know how to build a college list, you can feel comfortable knowing you’re preparing yourself well for college.

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