Starting The College List

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March 16, 2015

With so many colleges to think about (3,500 in the United States alone!), one of the most common questions we get asked is “Where the heck do I start?!”  

Great question.  And while you may be tempted to just refer to the rankings, we urge you to resist!  These lists are more often based on artificial distinctions and subjective opinions.  But even more importantly, these “rankings” ignore the most important information – whether or not the school is the right fit for you. 

Follow these steps to start your “right fit” college list:

  1. Get organized: You want to get in the habit of keeping all of your lists, notes, and research in one place – and this is the perfect time to start.  Whether you prefer hand-written or typed, create a dedicated notebook/binder or computer document/folder to keep everything “college".  

    Suggested Sections:

    • College Criteria (Sample Criteria)  - reflect on what factors matter to you in your future college experience
    • List in progress (this will be ever-changing until you finalize it- that is ok!)
    • Contact log (who you have connected with, when, how etc…)
    • College Pages – a dedicated page for each college where you can put notes and important contact information 
  2. Start exploring (locally): If you know exactly what you are looking for in a college – great!  But the majority of us aren’t quite sure what we want, at first.  A great place to start is by officially visiting 3 local and distinct colleges that have different campuses (rural, suburban, urban) and/or sizes (large, medium, small).  Even if you aren’t interested in these particular schools – you will learn a lot about your likes/dislikes and what criteria matter to you.

  3. Identify key criteria: Make a list of at least 5 things you really want your dream college to have (Consider These). This may be related to academic programs, extracurricular activities, research or unique opportunities, sports, school spirit, art programs, size, location, etc…. Try to be specific and consider if you are flexible (or not) about each criteria.

  4. Cast a wide net: Now is the time to really explore your options, try not to limit yourself during this phase.  Use guidebooks like Fiske and Princeton Review and websites like Big Future, Petersons, College Navigator, and Cappex to identify schools that meet your basic criteria.  Don’t forget to talk to your family, counselors, teachers, and trusted peers to learn about what schools they would recommend for you.

    One of our favorite tools is The College Board’s Big Future Website – use their college search function to plug in criteria and they will provide you a list of schools to consider. In reading each school’s snapshot – start your “long list” of schools that pique your interest.  You can record them on your “List in Progress”.  We are also huge fans of CTCL (Colleges that Change Lives) where you can learn about some of the most unique colleges and programs that you may have never found otherwise.  

  5. Create and Balance your “Long List:” You want your initial “long list” to have between 20-30 schools and you should aim to have this done by the spring of junior year.  You can use your long list to identify a few schools to visit over spring break. 

    It is important that you balance your “long list” by identifying each school as a safety, target, or reach.  Your college counselor can help you with this or you can try it out for yourself.  Make sure to read about the schools’ selectivity, how they weight factors like grades and activities, average scores and GPA, and admissions rates.  Ultimately, you want to narrow your list to 6-10 (max 12) schools that you will ultimately apply to through heavy research, visits, and serious reflection.

Contact Vault Prep today for help in identifying key criteria, generating a college list, and balancing your list.  We offer in-person, skype, and telephone services.