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Narrowing Down Your College List

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Let's say you find 25 colleges that sound interesting. How do you decide which ones deserve your time and attention?

If you have been searching for colleges for a while, it might be difficult to see the end of your college list. Now it's time to refine that list.

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 what you want in a college. You need to start with 10-20 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. 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 How to Choose Your Top College Priorities.

If You Need to Find Out More

If you realize that you don't know enough about your colleges, find useful information about them on their College Profiles. Dive into college catalogs and websites. Visit campuses and meet with college representatives. Talk with your counselor and current or former students about these colleges.

Tips for Building a Great Application List

Every year, many students find they are less-than-thrilled with the results of their college applications. So how do you make sure your college list leads to a happy ending?

  • Don't take a "wait-and-see" approach. Students who apply to all of the colleges on their initial list often wind up with a lot of stress, wasted time, rushed applications—and disappointing results.
  • Make sure your idea of "fit" keeps evolving. Many students change their college priorities as they find out more about colleges and college life. (College visits are real eye-openers.) Adjust your list as you continue to learn what's important to you.
  • Make sure you'll get in somewhere great. A few of your colleges should be very likely to admit you. This will ensure that you get into a college that you will be happy to attend.
  • Accept that all highly selective schools are reaches. Even if you have the best grades in the state, getting accepted to schools such as Harvard and Yale is never a given. If you are a top student, apply if those colleges appeal to you. But also apply to some backup schools with admission rates above 20 percent.
  • Find "financial safeties." Apply to colleges you believe will be affordable, either because their cost of attendance is manageable or because you expect your net price to be reasonable. Look for colleges where your grades and scores make you a highly desirable, above-average candidate—and thus more likely to get cost-reducing financial aid.

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