Let's say you find 20 or more colleges that sound interesting to you. You probably don't have time to investigate so many! Here's how to decide which ones deserve your time and attention.
If you have been searching broadly for colleges, you probably have a long list of candidates. Now your goal is to be picky. You need to refine your search before beginning an in-depth exploration of specific colleges.
Start with a Large Group of Colleges That Appeal to You
Many students identify 20 or more colleges without much problem. But if you have only a few colleges on your list, search for more based on your likes and dislikes at this point. You want to start with a healthy number of colleges so you can narrow your list down to your best choices.
Make a Shorter List of the Most Promising Candidates
The colleges that end up on your shorter list should be those that most closely match what you're looking for. Start with those that meet your most important requirements. Eliminate those that fall short. Our article Looking at Colleges Side by Side can help you identify these colleges. If you need help understanding what you most want in a college, take a look at our article From Dreams to Reality.
Find Out More About Them
You can find out more about colleges by studying their College Profiles on CollegeData. (Find them by using College Match.) You can talk with your counselor and current or former students. You can study college catalogs and websites. You can visit colleges, take their campus tours, and meet with college representatives.
As you go along, don't be afraid to add or eliminate colleges. As you look closer at certain colleges, you may discover features you don't find appealing. On the other hand, your investigation may reveal college qualities you had not realized would be important to you. You may want to add to your list more colleges that have those features.
Start Building a Great Application List
Every year, many students find they are not thrilled with the results of their college applications. Why? Because they did not put enough thought into A) what made a college a good fit for them, B) where they were likely to get admitted, or C) what is an affordable college cost. So how do you make sure your college list will lead to a happy ending?
- Give your idea of "fit" time to evolve. Many students change their minds about what they want in college as they find out more about colleges and college life. Nothing helps crystallize your idea of fit more than visiting colleges, even those you have no intention of attending. Talking with college students about their own experiences can also open your mind to aspects of college you had not considered.
- Include a range of admissions chances. As you refine your list, factor in your chances of admission. Include colleges for which you are a "good bet" to get admitted, those for which you are a "maybe," and those for which your chances are a "reach." Your list should include several from each category. You can estimate your chances by using our College Chances Calculator and by looking up a college's admission rate and qualifications of enrolled freshmen in its CollegeData Profile.
- Accept that all highly selective schools are reaches. Even if you have the best grades in the state, a highly selective school such as Harvard or Yale is always a reach. These schools reject hundreds of outstanding candidates every year. If you are a top student, by all means keep highly selective colleges on your list. But also include several well-researched backup schools with admission rates above 20 percent.
- Find some "financial safeties." Include on your list a number of colleges you believe will be affordable, either because the cost of attendance is manageable or because you expect your net price to be reasonable. Net price is your actual cost once grants and scholarships are deducted from the college's cost of attendance. (You can estimate it for any college by using CollegeData's Net Price Calculator.) To improve your chances of substantial financial aid, look for colleges where your grades, scores, talents, and enthusiasm will make you an above-average candidate.
Like the shopper who plans to make a major purchase, you may have a general idea of what you want in a college, but you want to browse and comparison shop first. You want to learn more about what's available, what suits you, and what you can afford. You're not making up your mind or actually "buying" anything yet—you're narrowing your list down by "just looking" and educating yourself in the process.