How To Build Your College List

Building your college list
June 7, 2024
7 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Unsure how to create a college list that reflects your needs and preferences? This guide will provide all the information you need to build a college list. 

Once you do your college research, you can build your college list. While putting together a comprehensive list can be challenging, this guide will teach you how to organize your college list to give yourself a great head-start. Let’s jump in! 

How to Build Your College List (How to Start) 

Taking your time to build your college list ensures you pick the perfect college and can avoid the tedious task of transferring schools. There are many factors to consider before you build your college list. If you can start early, your future self will thank you for doing most of the work now. Here’s how to get started:

1. Start By Building a College List That Includes Every Option

When considering how big your college list should be, it’s a good idea to start with many. You’ll narrow it down later! Make a list of 15-20 colleges you would like to attend.

2. Make Sure Your List Reflects Your Wants and Needs

If you prefer to stay in your home state, check out the colleges in nearby cities. If you prefer to be closer to home but are open to traveling for the perfect program, you should look at schools in and around your home state. 

Use college search tools and input your preferences to find schools that meet your criteria. Your school counselor can also recommend schools based on what you want. Find out which schools interest you the most and research them further. As you learn more, you should write down your thoughts and the pros and cons of each school. 

3. Narrow Down Your College List

The next step in making a college list is narrowing down your selections. You should think about categorizing and prioritizing it. Remember not to add more than 20 colleges to your final list.

Identify the most significant factors to you and the opportunities offered by colleges. For example, if prestige and reputation aren’t that important to you, don’t let that be the deciding factor between two or more potential schools. 

If you’re still struggling to narrow down your list, consider using this tool to compare your choices:

Creating an Effective College List

Making a college list that works includes selecting schools reflecting the categories listed below. Learning the differences between each category can help you organize your college list accordingly: 

  • Safety Schools: These are schools most likely to accept you. Your GPA and test scores exceed those of an average applicant, above the 75th percentile. You should apply to two or three of these schools.
  • Match Schools: Colleges likely to accept you, but there’s a chance they might not. Your grades and scores are at or above their averages, between the 50th and 75th percentiles. You should apply to three to five of these schools. 
  • Reach Schools: Colleges where you have a slimmer chance of acceptance. Your GPA and scores are lower than the averages they usually accept, between the 25th and 50th percentiles. You should apply to two to three of these schools.
  • Far-Reach Schools: Colleges where it’s unlikely you’ll be accepted based on your stats (below the 25th percentile). This category includes schools where acceptances are selective and unpredictable, like the Ivy League. 
Category Your Likelihood of Acceptance Where Your Grades/Scores Fall How Many of These Schools You Should Apply to
Likely/Safety Very likely Above the 75th percentile 2-3
Target/Match Likely Between the 50th and 75th percentiles 3-5
Reach Not so likely Between the 25th and 50th percentiles 2-3
Far-Reach Unlikely Below the 25th percentile (or the school is highly competitive) 1-2

When considering your list, start by finding schools in each category. However, this is just a guideline; you can apply to more schools in each category if you want to! 

For example, if you stick to safety schools, you might miss your chance at a world-renowned university. If you only list reach schools, it’s possible that you might not be accepted at all. Finding the right colleges for your list means adding a balance of top colleges and other universities with higher acceptance rates. 

Building Your College List: Factors to Consider

Organizing your college list means deciding which factors are most important to you. A balanced list should be a good fit for you in academics, social life, post-graduation plans, and finances. Here are several factors to consider as you get started: 

1. Academics

Academic factors encompass class offerings/style and opportunities. Even if you haven’t decided on a major, course offerings and instruction quality are important! You can consider these factors: 

  • What you want to study in college
  • Which colleges have programs related to your interest areas/major
  • Your class size preferences/learning style

In terms of opportunities, you can consider internships, research projects, and study-abroad offerings, among others! If you want more flexibility with your courses, you can also consider adding schools with open-curriculums to your list. 

2. The “Fit Factor”

When considering how you’ll fit into a school’s culture, you should think about your life on campus. Make a list of what you want out of your college experience. Factors related to fit include: 

  • Location: Do you want to attend school in a bustling city? Do you want to stay close to home or attend school across the country? Even climate can factor into your decision! 
  • Student Body: Do you want to attend a small or large campus? Are you looking for a more intimate class setting? How important is student body diversity to you? 
  • Extracurriculars: Extracurriculars encompass club offerings, athletics, and student organizations you’d like to join. 

Other factors to consider include what you’re looking for in terms of housing, food, and anything else that would appeal to you! 

3. After School 

The next step in building your college list is to consider your future after graduation and whether or not a school can help you achieve your goals. For example, you can consider whether or not there are enough research and work experience opportunities available and whether or not a school has an effective career center. 

You can also consider: 

  • Graduation rates 
  • Employment rates of students post-graduation 
  • Whether you want to work or continue studying after graduation
  • Alumni salaries/signing bonuses 
  • The expanse of the school’s alumni network

It’s best to consider your future when crafting a college list; thinking ahead can set you up to forge your path post-graduation! 

4. Finances

Another important factor to consider is the financial fit of each school with your and your family’s circumstances. For instance, it’s crucial to consider the cost of tuition, room and board, and other expenses. Asking yourself these questions can help you narrow down your school list: 

  1. What is your budget? 
  2. Are you applying for financial aid/scholarships? What does the school’s financial aid package look like? 
  3. Do you have savings or a plan to work while in school? 

You’ll also need to consider your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) and whether or not the schools on your list can meet your demonstrated financial need (if necessary). Remember, there are ways to work around your budget to make it less of a barrier—loans, grants, and scholarships can help you! 

It’s important to consider these factors thoroughly when building your college list! Talking to an expert at Quad Education can help you think through all of these factors and make informed college list decisions.

College List FAQs

Still curious about how to build a college list? Here are some common questions answered.

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

It’s never too early to start thinking about college! A good rule of thumb is to start building your college list in your junior year and applying to schools soon afterward, but you can start earlier if you want to. 

2. How Big Should My College List Be?

Your longer list should have around 15-20 colleges, but you can narrow it down as needed. 

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

Yes, because you should have backup plans. Applying to multiple schools increases your chances of acceptance; you may also find a new favorite! 

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

No, but it can be helpful. For example, you may not know which major you’re interested in, but if you love STEM subjects, you may consider adding more STEM schools to your list. 

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 though Ivies are selective, applying doesn’t hurt if you feel the school is the right fit for you!

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

Generally, the most important factor is the school’s academic offerings, but all factors matter in your decision. 

7. When Should I Start Looking for Colleges? 

It’s best to start looking for colleges in your senior year, but you can start earlier if you want to. 

8. How Do I Choose Which Colleges to Apply to? 

The best colleges to apply to are the ones that fit your needs, preferences, and goals best. Remember to consider all your selection factors before deciding! 

Take the College Selection Quiz

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

Build Your Future with the Perfect College List 

The college application process requires time and hard work. You can make things easier by starting early and crafting a college list based on your needs, preferences, and research. Your list doesn’t need to be set in stone; you can edit it as needed. 

Now that you know how to build a college list, you can feel comfortable knowing you’re preparing to attend your dream college

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