4 Key Tricks for Brainstorming Your College List

Posted by Danielle D. on 5/10/17 6:01 PM

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If you’re a rising high school senior looking toward college application season, one of your most important first steps is putting together a list of colleges you want to apply to. This list will help you plan college visits and make a schedule of application deadlines; it’s also an important time to check in about which schools’ admissions criteria match your test scores, grades, and activities. However, with more than 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States alone, the college search can be a little overwhelming, and it can be difficult to think beyond big-name schools or the colleges where all your high school classmates go. Here are four creative tricks for brainstorming outside the box when it comes to making your college list.

1. Written Meditation

If you’re having trouble thinking or talking about what you want from a college, you can trick your brain by writing about it instead! Written meditation, or freewriting, is a practice in which you write continuously for a small amount of time in response to a prompt or question. By forcing yourself to keep writing the entire time (even if you sometimes write “blah blah blah” or “I don’t know what to say”), you will find yourself writing down thoughts, ideas, and interests you didn’t know you had. Get started by setting a timer for fifteen minutes and writing in response to the prompt, “I imagine college will be….” You will likely find yourself expressing priorities for your college list that you didn’t know you had—maybe it’s important to you to live in a big city, to play in a college orchestra, or to attend a school that encourages study abroad. You can use these priorities to evaluate schools that you find using the strategies below, or to seek out schools that are known for the features that appeal to you. If you like freewriting, you can learn more from Lynchburg College or the University of Richmond.

2. A Map Quest

Where is the best place you’ve ever been on vacation? What is your favorite city in the United States? Where have you always wanted to visit? College is likely the first time in your life that you will get to have a say in where you live—so start exploring your options in towns, cities, and states that appeal to you! Make a list of places you’ve visited that you’ve liked, or places you’ve always wanted to visit, and then try a Google search like “Honolulu colleges” or “Tennessee colleges” to find a list of colleges and universities in that city or state. (Wikipedia even has lists of colleges for most states.) You might also ask your parents if there are particular cities they are hoping you’ll consider living in, and you could even search for colleges in your home city or state—there are likely some you don’t know about! Once you make a list of schools based on location, you can find those schools’ individual websites to learn more.

3. Follow the Numbers

While SAT or ACT scores are certainly not a perfect tool for predicting college admissions, they do offer you a good general sense of which schools are a good match for your academic stats. You can use the free, government-run website College Navigator to search for colleges using many different criteria, including location, tuition cost, size, sports teams, and religious affiliation. But you can also search by test scores! Using the search function on the left side of the home page, click “More Search Options” and then set the minimum and maximum scores for SAT Critical Reading and Math or ACT Composite Score. The search tool will find you schools at which 75% of the admitted students scored within the range you select. You can combine this test score search with other criteria from your freewriting and location brainstorming in order to generate a personalized list of potential colleges.

4. Ask Questions

You probably interact with many adults with college degrees on a regular basis. Whether your parents went to college or not, your school teachers, clergy, coaches, and band directors likely all went to college, and many of them will be happy to talk about their experiences with you! You might also have older friends who are currently in college. Ask these adults how they picked their university, what they liked about it, what they didn’t like, and what they would change about the college search process if they could do it again. You might find some people who picked the college closest to home, and some who conducted a huge search or travelled across the country for school—and either of those might be a good option for you! By talking with a variety of people who have been to college, you’ll not only learn about specific schools you could apply to, but also what it’s like to be a college student.

Once you have a list you’re happy with, you can move on to sorting your list into buckets, planning your college visits, or jumpstarting your application essay!

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Tags: college admissions