How to build a smart, non-crazy-making college list

college admissions
By Madison


The college application process can seem totally daunting. No surprises there. The standardized test date that looms in the distance as you study into the nights, combing the recesses of your mind trying to remember the difference between a conjunctive adverb and a subordinating conjunction from that one grammar lecture in third grade. The deep preliminary introspection you dive into at the first glance of a sample application prompt as you ponder who you are and what you shall become. The sudden influx of shiny college brochures at the end of the driveway, your overstuffed mailbox seemingly weighed down by the decision that awaits you. Suddenly, family members start sporting their college sweatshirts - emblazoned with crests and mottos - around you as they casually drop their alma mater into every conversation. All at once, you begin to notice university-branded bumper stickers on every passing car. The question that seemingly defines your ENTIRE future bombards you on every side: Where will you go? Where will you spend the nascent years of your adulthood? There. Is. No. Escape.

RELAX. Breathe in, breathe out. Yes, the decision of where you will go to college is an important one. But, the process of making that decision should ultimately be a fun one. FUN?! Yes, you heard me right. And before you roll your eyes, close your laptop, and mutter that I’m probably so far past college that I’m seeing it in rose-colored retrospective glasses, don’t. I remember how overwhelmed I felt when I was staring down the list of 5000+ US colleges, worried that I would pick the “wrong” list of schools to apply to and, in doing so, ruin my future. I remember fearfully stressing I wouldn’t get in anywhere. Overwhelm, stress, fear, worry: these feelings may be common, but that doesn’t make them necessary. Read on, and I’ll show you what I’ve learned about putting together your college list, both as a student and as a counselor, to make this exploratory journey an enjoyable, stress-free one.

Reframing The Question

First, let’s work a little on shifting your mindset concerning the college list. Instead of thinking “Where will I go?”, think “Where do I want to go?” Instead of “What college will take me?”, think “Where do I want to enjoy the next four years of my life?” I know the differences between these questions may seem minute, but they are actually pretty monumental. You need to understand that yes, colleges have standards of acceptance, but so should you. This next step in your education is more than just a time to learn about more advanced topics: it is a time of exploration that will inform your passion, a time of transition that will launch you into adulthood, and a time of maturation that will allow you to evolve in your relational, intellectual, and creative capabilities. You need to make sure that your list reflects schools that maximize this period of growth for YOUR way of learning and YOUR personality. Stop being intimidated by the idea that a school may or may not pick you, and start asking yourself, “Which schools do I pick?”

Tailoring The Fit

Now, let’s talk about a few areas within which you can develop your standards for the schools on your list. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Academics: Obviously, it is important that the schools on your list offer your major(s) of interest. However, dig a little bit deeper and check out the curriculums within the major. Do any of the classes excite you? Does the program’s philosophy cater to the way you like to learn? For instance, if you are more of a hands-on learner, you may like a program geared more towards lab work.
  2. Size: The size of the school makes a significant difference to some students. Smaller schools tend to have lower student-to-teacher ratios, meaning that you may have greater access to your professors both within and outside of the classroom. Some bigger campuses have more options for major selection.
  3. Location: Do you want to live in a big city or in a quieter college town or in a rural area? Think about your life on campus and outside of campus. Are you the type of student who wants to go see Broadway shows every weekend to get inspiration for the play you’re writing? Do you want to be close to home so that you can be near your family? Remember that you are finding a new place to live as well as a place to study.
  4. Extracurriculars: Most of your time on campus will be spent outside of class. Look on the school’s website and see if there are any clubs that interest you. Is there a club you were involved in in high school that you wish to continue? Check and see if there is a local chapter at the university!
  5. Social Organizations: The social scene at your college is not a frivolous consideration. Camaraderie, relationships, and networking are huge parts of the college experience. If you are interested in fraternities/sororities, don’t be afraid to check out the Greek life on campus. Similarly, you can research for groups centered around culture, religion, and identity, should you wish to makes those groups a part of your community.
  6. Career Services: This is a huge consideration. Do not be afraid to call the school and ask about their career service offerings for students in your major. College is meant to set you up for your career. Some colleges excel in helping to place their students in jobs right after graduation. Some provide incredible internship programs. Some have excellent resources to advise graduate school applications. ASK the schools about this aspect of their campuses.
  7. Weather: I know I know…this may sound like a silly thing to think about. But honestly, the weather can have a big effect on your mood and therefore your productivity. I loved my time at Harvard, but in order to do so, I had to CONSISTENTLY wear hand-warmers and giant 10lb snow boots. I’m from Texas, and the first winter was a huge shock. But for me, the sacrifice of cold weather was worth it to go to a school that met all of my other needs. So, think about how weather will affect you. Will rainy weather make you sad? Will warm weather distract you?

Exploring The World

Once you have written down the things that are important to you in a school, go explore based on those qualifications! Sources like Big Future on Collegeboard,, and are good places to start. Look at both the official reports from the colleges as well as the student reviews! Listen to college podcasts such as The College Prep Podcast and The College Checklist Podcast to hear interviews from admissions officers from different schools. Read “Colleges That Change Lives” to read about incredible schools that aren’t necessarily the famous ones that everyone knows. I’ll put up another blog entry soon that goes into details about each of these resources, but my point now is, explore! If you can, go visit colleges and step onto the campuses. Talk to friends and family members about their “real” experiences at their schools. In other words, ask them to be straight with you about what they loved and what they might have improved about their time on campus.

Reinterpreting The “Safety”

Before I close, a brief note about the make-up of your list: you should love EVERY school on it. Typically, I advise students to apply to 15 schools with even distribution of “reach”, “target”, and “safety” schools (terms which explain how difficult it may be for the student to get admitted based on the school’s admissions policies and acceptance rate). Yes, these three terms refer to where your test scores, grades, leadership, awards, and community service land in relation to the universities’ standards, and you can find out these standards by checking the Big Future app run by the College Board, calling the individual universities’ admissions offices, or looking through the universities’ websites. However, the most important thing you should consider when making your list is this: “If I only get accepted to one of these, will I still be ecstatic?” The answer should be yes. Most students think of their safety schools as throwaways that they’ll go to if they don’t get into their top choice schools. Every school should be exciting to you.

As I keep updating the blog, I’ll go further into the nitty gritty of how to search for schools and what resources to use to do so. However, for now, I hope you walk away feeling a bit less stressed about this process of making your college list. Remember that it should be fun! If you have made the decision to make college your next step, there IS a place for you out there that will meet all of your needs, wishes, and desires, from the classes you want to take to the Saturday night game night you want to attend.