There are over 4,000 degree-granting, post-secondary institutions in the US, according to the Department of Education. They include 2-year and 4-year programs, state schools and private universities, liberal arts colleges and massive research universities. It can be hard to know which category of school is right for you, much less which school.
In this article, we’ll help you develop a list of colleges you would like to apply to from scratch. If you already have an idea of which colleges you would like to apply to, you can skip to step 2 in the article below.
Step 1: Make a List
The first step in the process of choosing schools to apply to is to make a list of all the schools that could interest you. At this stage, it’s better to note every school that could potentially be a good fit without editing your list much–you’ll narrow it later.
There are several ways to identify colleges and universities for your initial list:
Talk to Others About College
If you have any classmates, friends, siblings, cousins, or other connections who are already in college, ask them about their schools. What do they like about their college? Would they change anything about their school? What other schools interested them? Speaking with people can really help you identify which colleges belong on your initial list and which don’t. Your friends and classmates may even have an idea of whether you would be happy at a particular college or not.
You can also ask your teachers, guidance counselors, and parents for recommendations.
That said, while recommendations can be helpful, it can be harmful to focus your school list on what others want for you. If you apply to your parents’ alma mater or another school they want you to attend, do it because you are genuinely interested in the school, not because they tell you. It is also best not to apply to the same schools as your friends just because your friends are going there. A school that is the right choice for your friend may not be the best fit for you.
Think About Your Goals
If a school will not help you reach your future goals, it should not be on your list. For example, if you want to major in business, a university with an undergraduate business school may be a better choice than a liberal arts college.
If you’re interested in majoring or working in a very specific field (Astrobiology, Nautical Archaeology), you may have to attend a larger university that offers that degree.
It is also worth looking at rankings for your chosen major and looking at which schools professionals who are currently in the field attended to make an initial list of universities.
If you are not quite sure what subject you want to major in or what field(s) you want to work in, try to choose universities that offer a number of options that interest you and time to take classes before you select your major.
The educational experience at a university can be a key part of whether the school will help you reach your goals and whether you will enjoy your time there. When considering schools, look at special offerings like study abroad, co-op programs, capstone projects, community partnerships, and other opportunities to put classroom lessons into practice.
Explore Social and Extracurricular Offerings
While it is important to consider whether a school’s academic offerings would help you reach your goals, it is also important to make sure you can continue pursuing your interests and enjoy your time on campus.
Look into whether a school offers extracurricular activities and clubs that interest you. For example, if your favorite activity is marching band, you should look at colleges and universities with bands. If you play a sport but you don’t want to be on a Division 1 team, look for a school that offers club sports or less competitive teams.
It is also worth thinking about the social environment you would prefer on campus. Would you prefer to go to a school with a number of social activities outside of classes and extracurriculars or would you rather focus on academic life? Are you looking for a school with a vibrant party scene or a quieter campus?
Greek life is a major consideration for a number of students, whether you want to join a fraternity or sorority or avoid campuses that offer them. Do the schools you’re looking at have Greek systems? If so, what percentage of students are part of Greek life? What opportunities do the schools offer outside of Greek life?
If you don’t want to join a fraternity or sorority but the Greek system dominates social life on campus, the school might not be a good fit for you. Conversely, if you want to pledge and a school has no fraternities/sororities or is considering banning them, you might want to look elsewhere.
Think About Location
It is also important to think about the locations of the universities you are targeting. There are two key elements to location: region and type.
First, you should think about which region of the country you would like to live in. Do you want to be within driving distance of home, or are you excited to move across the country? Is there a particular state or area you want to live in? If so, it makes sense to focus on schools in that region.
It is worth noting that attending a university in the area where you want to live after graduation can be really helpful. While many universities have worldwide networks, the highest number of alumni often end up in the cities and towns near the school. It may be easier for you to find jobs in the same region as your university because of the alumni network, and many of your college friends may end up living in the same area as well.
In addition to region, you should think about the type of university location you’d prefer. Do you want to live on an idyllic rural campus or in the middle of a vibrant city? A remote campus may have a closer community, while a city campus may offer more opportunities outside of class. It’s always a good idea to visit each campus to make sure you like its location.
Step 2: Develop Your Shortlist
Once you have a list of a number of programs that interest you, it’s time to learn more about them and choose the programs that really interest you! Here are a few strategies you can use to finalize your college list:
Take some time to learn more about the schools on your list. You can look at the school’s brochures, mailings, and websites, but it’s important to remember that these documents are marketing materials for the school. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t accurate but it does mean that these materials will focus on the positives and won’t give you the full picture of what the school is like.
In addition to reviewing the school’s website, look at the course catalog to see whether the courses in your major interest you. It is also helpful to look at the graduation requirements for your major/college. Will you be required to take classes outside of your major? Would you have the opportunity to choose classes that interest you or is most of your schedule set in advance? Will you have to take a number of required introductory/core classes?
You can also look at the websites and social media accounts of the college clubs that interest you. Are they active? What types of events do they offer and plan?
Finally, reading news and opinions from the campus newspaper(s) can help you gain a more nuanced picture of the school. The student press usually operates with minimal oversight from the administration, so it can give you the best sense of what aspects of the university students want to see changed.
It is crucial to take the cost of college into account, particularly if you will need financial aid to afford school. The price of different schools can vary by tens of thousands of dollars, which may mean the difference between graduating debt free and spending years or decades paying for your education.
However, it’s important to focus on a school’s actual costs instead of the “sticker price” (the official, published price). For example, a few private colleges with high sticker prices offer generous “loan-free” arrangements and other forms of financial aid that can make them some of the most affordable options for disadvantaged students.
The US Department of Education offers an invaluable tool that can help you figure out how much a particular college may cost you: College Scorecard.
College Scorecard provides information on the average cost of individual universities based on different family incomes. It also shows the average loan debt students graduate with and the percent of students who graduate with debt. That information can really help you get a sense of how affordable a college may be for you.
While you’re looking at the financial aid data, take a look at the percentage of students who graduate in six years. It is worth reaching out to the admissions office to ask how your aid would change if you would have to remain on campus for more than four years. It can be very expensive to add a year to your education or to not graduate at all.
If you have high grades or test scores, you may also qualify for merit scholarships at the schools you’re considering. Review each school’s merit aid offerings to see how prevalent merit aid is. Some schools offer automatic scholarships for grades and test scores above a particular score.
Choose Safety Schools
With such a universe of possibilities in front of you, it can be tempting to make really ambitious school choices. That is a good thing! You should be excited about as many of the colleges you apply to as possible.
That said, it’s important to have a backup plan in case you’re not admitted to your first-choice schools. College admissions becomes more competitive every year and you can reach for more competitive schools if you know that you have applied to other schools where you have a great chance of getting in.
Schools where you are almost guaranteed to get in are called “safety schools.” You should include at least two safety schools on your college list.
How can you tell if a school is a safety school? Safety schools are institutions where you exceed the admissions requirements. For example, your GPA and SAT/ACT score should be around the 75th percentile for that specific safety school. Safety schools usually have high admissions rates as well.
Some state schools lay out clear pathways or requirements for in-state applicants to earn admission. If your state provides a clear admission pathway for in-state students and you meet or exceed it, your state school can likely be one of your safety schools.
If you’re planning to apply to highly competitive schools (e.g., Ivy Leagues, MIT, CalTech, Stanford, top liberal arts colleges) and/or schools where your GPA and SAT/ACT scores fall below the school’s average, make sure you have a few other schools on your list where your scores fall at or above average.
Finally, campus visits are one of the most powerful tools to help you identify the schools that should be on your college shortlist. Visiting campus can give you a sense of the school’s climate and culture that no other source can provide. You may find that a school you weren’t sure about could be a perfect fit, or that one of your top choices doesn’t seem like the best school for you after all.
Visiting a particular college may also teach you a broader lesson about what you’re looking for in a university. For example, you may think that you want to live in a city, only to find that you are more comfortable on a suburban campus.
For more information about campus visits, see our article here: How to Make the Most of Your College Visits
If you’re not quite sure what your final list of colleges will look like yet, don’t worry! Speaking with people and learning more about your interests and potential schools will help you figure out what you want and don’t want in your college experience.
Photo: Arizona State University, Tempe Main Campus. Credit: davidpinter, Wikimedia Commons.