College List

How To Make a College List That’s Right For You

When you start applying to college, it makes a lot of sense to start with a list. But what schools should you put on that list? You might start by writing a list of schools you’ve heard of: Johns Hopkins, MIT, NYU, USC, and so on. Is this the best approach to building a list of schools? How do you make a college list that’s right for you?

A Balanced College List

Let’s start with the basics. You’ve probably heard that a college list should contain three tiers: reach, match, and safety. What do these terms mean? A safety school is one for which you have a very good shot at admission. Your GPA and test scores are above the 75th percentile for that college, which has a 30% or above admission rate. A match school is one in which you’re about average when it comes to applicants. Your GPA and test scores are between the 25th and 75th percentiles for the college, which has a 20% or above admission rate. A reach school is super competitive. Any school with an admission rate below 20% should be considered a reach for anyone and everyone. In addition, if your GPA and test scores fall below the 25th percentile for the college, that would also make the school a reach for you.

It’s a match!

You might be tempted to pack your list with mostly (or exclusively) reach schools, reasoning that if you apply to enough of them, you’ll certainly get into at least one. This isn’t a good strategy. Applying to reach schools takes time: they almost all have one or more supplemental essays. If you don’t have time to draft and revise high-quality, polished essays, it probably isn’t worth submitting your application to one of these schools. Be honest with yourself: apply only to the number of schools that you have the time to handle.

Likewise, don’t sell yourself short by creating a college list with only safety schools. Safety school, it should be noted, isn’t a derogatory term. It’s just a school that you’re fairly confident you can get into. It’s always a good strategy to include some safety schools in your list.

How many schools are we talking about here? If you’re applying to competitive (i.e., highly rejective) schools, we usually recommend applying to a total of 9-12 schools that you’re actually interested in attending, 3-4 in each category. However, there are some circumstances—if you’re admitted early decision or through rolling admissions, for example—where it makes sense to apply to fewer schools. 

To make a good college list, you should have a balance of reach, match, and safety schools. Without a balanced college list, you may feel disappointed with the results of your college search. 

College Selection Process

Now that you know the school categories, how do you populate the list? 

The college selection is a discovery process, an exploration. You’ll add and take away schools as you do your research and learn more about your preferences. Initially, you may have 20 or 30 schools that you’re interested in. Although, as noted earlier, you’ll eventually want to get your list down to about 12 schools, don’t worry too much about how many schools you have in the early stages.

There are two main approaches to making a college list:

Basic strategySelect the most prestigious universities to which you think you can gain admissionSelect schools most suitable to you, based on your criteria, such as academic programs, teaching philosophy, student body demographics, geography, etc.
Dominant ReasoningEducation as a status symbol, like a handbag, watch, or carEducation as a shaping process 
AdvantageBrand-name recognitionEmphasizes the right college experience for you
DisadvantageWhat matters is chosen by the compilers of rankingsRequires more research and reflection on the front end
Two main approaches to making a college list:: Reputation vs Fit

It may seem like a good idea to favor the reputation strategy. College rankings seem to make it easy to compare schools based on reputation. In contrast, fit is hard to measure. While it’s fine to start with reputation, reputation can only get you so far. A recent study summarizes the research and finds that college rankings have very little to do with how graduates do later in life (“A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings,” Stanford Graduate School of Education). What matters in terms of positive outcomes is not school selectivity, but rather how you engage in learning and campus community. That suggests that fit, for all of its complexity, is the better strategy for making your college list. 

What makes a school a good fit? It’s an institution that motivates you to invest in your own education in meaningful ways. Start by asking yourself: What will this school do for me in terms of learning something I’m interested in, shaping my character, making new friends, finding mentors, and acquiring new skills? Ultimately, making a good college list is highly personal and subjective, based on your preferences and also the characteristics of the schools. If you’re ready, consider hiring a professional college counselor with Ivy-Way to help you put together your list. 

Factors to Consider

While only you can decide which colleges meet your needs and preferences, there are some of the most important factors to consider:

  • Academic programs. Some schools are known for their STEM programs, others for business or world-class humanities programs. It’s a good idea to include lists that are known for what you want to study. Undecided? No problem. Just make sure the schools have the fields that you’re potentially interested in.
  • Campus location, setting, and weather. Determine whether a school is located in a place that makes sense for you. Do you thrive in big cities or do you prefer a quieter, small-town feel? How important is travel time to the nearest airport or urban center? Weather can also impact your mood and motivation. Do you enjoy sunny, warm weather all year round, or do you prefer changing seasons? Does the cold make you excited or down? You don’t want to end up in a place that makes you feel miserable and homesick. 
  • Cost. Cost is a critical factor when it comes to deciding on what school should make it onto your list. The difference in cost of schools that offer similar education experiences can be 10,000s of US dollars. Don’t forget to look into scholarships, grants, and financial aid. Private schools are pricey, but the sticker price doesn’t always represent what you actually pay.
  • Demographics or student racial/ethnic diversity. Whether you are a member of an underrepresented minority or not, consider choosing colleges that emphasize diversity. It’s good to have a student body with a mix of people with similar and different experiences than yours. Additionally, more diverse campuses offer richer, more fun educational experiences and prepare you for the complexities of the real workforce.  
  • School size. Colleges come in different sizes. Large campuses may feel overwhelming, especially if you come from a small high school, but they offer more options and amenities. Small campuses may offer smaller classes and more opportunities to build relationships with teachers, but provide fewer things to do, and may feel stifling over time.   

You may feel indifferent towards some of these factors, while others may be maximally significant. That’s fine. Refining your college list depends on identifying what is important to you and the opportunities/programs a school has to offer. You must reflect on what you’re looking for in terms of academic programs, campus location, cost, demographics, school size, etc. 

How do you actually find this out about these schools? Research, of course! You have three major research options:

  1. Official college websites
  2. College search engines (such as the College Board’s BigFuture)
  3. Ivy-Way’s college search tool

Research bunny’s cuteness

will help you as you do your college research.

Aside from doing research on your own, consider asking people you know where they went to college, why they went to college there, and what their experience was like. Ask parents, extended family, family friends, teachers, mentors, and college counselors. Try to figure out where people you respect or admire attended. Learn what path they took and you might find schools you might be interested in that weren’t previously on your radar.

Make a College List You’re Excited About

Every college on your list should make you excited

While the amount of excitement you have about any one school may vary, you should be at least somewhat excited about every school on your list. If you actually think about why you’re applying to each school on your list—think about the fit—then you can be excited about wherever you end up because you know why you applied to that school in the first place. This will also be an enormous help to you when it comes time to write the “why this college” essay. If you haven’t found schools that you’re excited about, keep looking. There are thousands of schools in the US alone. 

Selecting a list of colleges can be a fun, eye-opening experience. You’re going to spend 4 (or more) years at this institution, which will impact you in many different ways. You get to move away from home (usually) and become an independent person. Use the list-making process as an opportunity to explore new perspectives and possibilities, rather than locking yourself into a narrow set of options from the get-go. 

Conclusion: How to Make a College List

While there’s no set number of schools to put on your college list, most students should opt for a balanced list with three to four safety, match, and reach each. A good overall strategy is to focus on fit, rather than just reputation, making sure each college meets your preferences through research. Use factors that matter to you as a standard to evaluate colleges. By taking advantage of research tools like Ivy-Way’s college database, you can find information on colleges efficiently. Make sure you’re at least somewhat excited about every school on your list. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be sure to put together a college list that’s right for you.  


Stanford Graduate School of Education, “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity,” October 2018.

Dr. R. J.

Dr. R.J. is a writer, editor, teacher, and academic coach & consultant. He's a devotee of speculative fiction, especially stories involving spaceships, robots, time travel, and/or laser swords. He currently works at Ivy-Way Academy helping students achieve their full academic potential.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *