Building a School List for College Admissions

Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

In many regards, applying to college has become a science. Because of this, students often ask us how to create their college list for college admissions. While there are many approaches and ways to do so, here at Empowerly we have developed a series of metrics to help students categorize colleges, choose the number of colleges to apply to, and be confident in their choices. In this article, we will review the types of colleges and the different approaches to college list creation. Ready to start building a school list for college admissions? Join us!

This guide is a handy introduction to building your school list at the beginning of the college applications process. Next, we’ll dig into a little more context to help you find your way.

Types of colleges

While this is by no means a comprehensive, definitive taxonomy, the types of colleges we will review today are helpful to understand while crafting a college round-up.

Some of our experts have posited that there are really three types of colleges when it comes to drafting your final application list:

  • liberal arts schools
  • national schools
  • “pointed” schools

Let’s dig in to what each of those categories can mean.

Liberal Arts

Liberal arts colleges focus on traditional liberal arts majors but have recently expanded to STEM. In fact, a strategy we use with our students at Empowerly is to always apply to a few liberal arts schools to round out a school list. Many liberal arts colleges are significantly adding to their STEM curriculum and most have majors in the field.


The second type of college is the national university. These are large research universities that often have several schools within them that focus on engineering, arts and sciences, and other disciplines. They include colleges like Stanford, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins. We always recommend students apply to a few of these to make sure they have the option to go to a college that has several major options for study.


The final type of college are what we call “pointed” colleges. These colleges are particularly strong at a few subjects and often significantly weaker in other subjects. In fact, their admissions rates vary widely depending on the type of major. One of the most common fallacies we hear are that parents think many schools are pointed schools when in fact they are national universities. Examples of pointed schools include UIUC and other public school systems that particularly strong in engineering.

Types of school lists

So next, you’re ready to start building your school list for college admissions all on your own! Give yourself plenty of time to make adjustments and do your research throughout this stage.

We believe there are two types of college lists: aggressive and regular. To create these types of lists, we categorize schools across four key buckets – safety, target, reach or challenge, and high reach. Note that we add in challenge (also known as reach) because we believe there is often mis-categorization between target and reach for many students. There are also high reach schools which would be one tier above that challenge category. Making that category more distinct is critical to ensure that school lists are balanced.

Aggressive school lists

Aggressive college lists are focused on the challenge and reach and they often are used by students applying to more than 10 colleges with us. With most students and parents that we work with, aggressive lists are what we use as they increase a student’s odds of getting into a reach school if we can apply to more colleges.

Regular school lists

Regular lists are more balanced across the categories. This allows for a more even risk profile across your college admissions chances, whether you feel unsure about your profile or simply want a lower-intensity application process.

Developing a college list can be tough and often requires a lot of thinking. The two major factors are the number of colleges and the types of colleges you are applying to. In this article, we reviewed the two types of lists and the types of colleges to give you a primer to the most necessary information when you get started!

Finalizing your list

The college applications process is highly individualized and nuanced. While it’s important to keep the major guidelines in mind, there are also many exceptions and reasons to deviate from the norm. That’s why we recommend working with an expert mentor or counselor who is familiar with your situation and can adapt to your needs.

At Empowerly, we are ready and waiting to learn about your goals and dreams. Our community of college experts with first-hand experience have a wealth of knowledge and resources to support you from start to finish. Interested in learning more? Schedule a consultation with a college counselor today!

Questions? Let us know!