How to Create Your College List

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Gelyna Price
Gelyna Price

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When you’re applying to colleges, you’ll first want to create your college list. When you do, it’s important to choose a range of schools falling into three basic categories: safety, target, and reach.

Safety schools are those which you’re very likely to get into, because your test scores and grades are above the average there. Target schools are those for which your academic profile is a fairly standard it. Finally, reach schools are the ones where your academics may not quite be up to snuff, often because the school itself is so competitive.

Ideally, you should apply to several schools in each of these categories. While you may get some rejections — especially in the reach and target categories — this also means you’re very likely to have several schools to choose from. Your acceptances will probably mostly come from your safety and target categories, but you may be lucky enough to get into one or more of your reach schools as well. 

Of course, to do this, you’ll need to create your college list to include options from each of these categories. But how do you narrow down all the college options to ten to fifteen, and how do you know which schools are in which categories?

Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Your Final College List

First, you’re going to make a long list of colleges with potential. This won’t be the last step to create your college list, don’t worry! While we’re shooting for ten to fifteen schools by the end of the process, so right now it’s okay — actually, it’s great — if your list is a lot longer than that. We’ll narrow it down later.

  1. Do you already have some colleges in mind that you already know about and are definitely interested in attending? If so, write these down.
  2. Research other schools to create a longer list. Talk to your high school guidance counselor, teachers, parents, relatives, and other trusted adults to hear their thoughts and recommendations, and add any colleges they mention that interest you to your list.
  3. In addition, do some of your own research. Are you absolutely sure that you want to major in either history or economics, for example? Do some online sleuthing to figure out the top schools in each of these majors. Add them to your list.
  4. Add any other schools you can think of to your list. If you’re a passionate surfer, for example, you might want to add schools on the California coast to your list even if you don’t know much about them than that they’re near great surfing beaches.

Now that you have your long list of colleges, it’s time to separate the schools into categories. Remember, you’re going for three categories here: safety, target, and reach.

  1. Make a spreadsheet with columns for each of the three categories.
  2. You probably know your GPA and test scores off the top of your head at this point, but if not, write them down for easy reference.
  3. Start at the top of your list of schools with potential. You’re going to do some basic research to find out the average GPA and test scores of the last incoming class. You can almost always find this online, but if not, feel free to call the admissions office and ask.
  4. Compare your scores and GPA to those of the school’s incoming class. If your academic results are significantly stronger than the average at this school, add it to the “safety” column. If your scores are weaker than the average here, add the school to your “reach” column. And if your scores and GPA are pretty similar to the average, put this school in your “target” column.
  5. Go down your list of schools with potential, following this process for each one. Right now, don’t worry about ruling out any schools; just get them all sorted into their appropriate categories.

Ready to narrow down your list? At this point, you should ideally have quite a few schools in each of the three categories. The reason you haven’t ruled any out yet is that if you were to do so at the beginning, you might have inadvertently ruled out all or most of the schools from one category. Doing it this way allows you to narrow down the list by category instead. And that’s what we’ll do now!

  1. Pick one of your three categories of schools: safety, target, or reach.
  2. Start at the top of the list in that category. This time, you’re going to do some in-depth research on the school to help you figure out whether you want to go there. In this stage, don’t use your likelihood of getting in as a deciding factor; remember you want some easy schools and some that you’re not as likely to get into.
  3. Jot down some notes about the first school beside its name on your list. Include both pros and cons. Things to think about, for example: does it offer a strong program in the field that interests you most? Is it a good size for you? In a good location? In the right type of environment (urban, suburban, rural) for you? Does it offer easy access to the extracurriculars that matter to you? Will the academics be challenging or easy for you — and which do you prefer? There are lots of other factors to consider, but those should get you started.
  4. Repeat this for each school in the first category you’re working in. By the end, you should know quite a bit about each school, and have a clear sense of its pros and cons for you personally.
  5. Eliminate any schools for which the cons outweigh the pros. If this brings you down to 3 to 5 schools in this category, great! You’re done and can move on to the next category.
  6. If you still have more than 3 to 5 schools in the category after ruling out the obvious ones, try this: arrange the remaining colleges in order of how good a fit they are for you. You may struggle to give them exact rankings, but it should be fairly clear which are on the top and bottom. Keep the top 3 to 5 schools and eliminate the rest. Another option is to speak with your college counselor again. He or she is an incredibly valuable resource who’s there to help you with things like this, so don’t be shy!
  7. Repeat this process for the remaining categories. At the end, you’ll have 4 to 5 schools in each of your three categories.

Congratulations! Unless some new information comes to light, you now have learned how to create your college list. Applying to all of these schools covers your bases and ensures you’ll apply to schools in each category, which can help give you a broader range of results when you hear back from colleges.

Questions? Let us know!