The Secret to Finding AND Owning Your College List

If you are a rising Senior, you’re most likely (or will be very soon according to your mother who has been kindly reminding you) thinking about where you’ll be applying in the Fall to four-year universities. I give you major kudos. Because a few things may feel differently in today’s age. Like the fact that because of social media you literally are connected to everyone’s updates every second of every day. And it REALLY feels like college has become a ridiculously selective and convoluted process. And even though you’ve joined a sport, taken a few honors courses and volunteered your precious weekends away, you STILL may not feel as competitive as your peers for admission. So ya…the college process can seem a bit daunting, especially now that it’s becoming…like…real.

As you sit down to your computer and start adding colleges to your list of potentials, it can be super easy to get caught up in what you’ve heard, what you know and what you THINK you know. The schools that sound familiar to you because you’ve heard them from the previous graduating classes. The colleges that U.S. News World & Report remind you are ranked and in the “top” of their categories. The universities that your parents, guardians and maybe even your cousins, neighbors, or heck anyone, that tell you are “the good ones” to apply to. All unnecessary chatter as you quickly forget what you VALUE in a college and WHY you’re even applying in the first place which typically leads to a SUPER UNBALANCED stretch of a college list that if you don’t get in by a Hail Mary, well then you gave it a good shot and that’s that. Phew. Let’s take a breath. Really. Breathe. 

As you start to build your college list, here are EASY values that remind you WHY you’re applying to them in the first place and a few tips to help you through those awkward conversations of “oh, I’ve never heard of that place” or “why would you apply there?”



Three things to value in EACH college on your balanced list:

  1. Academic Fit
    • Challenging, yet supportive academically. Note, this looks different for EACH student.
    • Curriculum. Pay attention to things like core requirements, interdisciplinary work, accessibility to research, university-wide initiatives within the curriculum such as readings, discussions, projects, etc.
    • Major (program or programs) your interested in studying. Really peel back the curtain here. Don’t just check if they have the major…GO to the major’s page on the website, read what classes you’d actually be taking, are there professors doing unique or compelling work within your field of choice?
    • Specialized programming. Do they have an honors college? A specialized research stipend? Academic competitions?
  2. Social Fit
    • Every campus has an ethos, a mission statement that drives how they view not only higher education, but how their graduates fit within the greater world. What is that? Look up the college’s mission statement. What do they value. Do you value the same things?
    • Religious organizations, clubs, student groups, Greek systems, intramural sports, etc.. What are like-minded social groups on campus you would want to join?
    • What’s the VIBE. There are a TON of online resources to get a sense of the university. Remember that not all online sites or reviews by students the end all be all, but it is nice to get a sense if you can’t fly or visit. Check Unigo, a “yelp” type review for colleges, a TON of colleges are on SnapChat, social media, take a virtual tour. Call the school and ask to get connected with a student that you can email back and forth with.
    • Location, size, etc. Tour local universities of varying size to get a sense of what a small school vs. a large one really feels like. Go on Google maps, zoom out and see what’s around the university. Get a sense of the local community as much as the campus community.
  3. Financial Fit
    • Warning! Don’t fall in love with a school only to be surprised in the Spring semester that your financial aid package isn’t as dreamy as you hoped.
    • Check out 3 Tools to Tell College Affordability for more information on resources to estimate the Net Cost of a university.
    • Check for priority scholarship deadlines too!

Check out this article on amazing online resources to help begin the college search online: College Search for Juniors…Finding Your Fit


Look, we all want to have those schools we apply to…just to see. That’s absolutely OKAY. But also realize that one person can only handle so many no’s. Imagine asking 12 dates to prom (and you’ve gone through an entire prom-posal and spent a ton of time and energy with each of them) and 10 of them say NO. That’s rough, EVEN if you expected it. Plus you’ve now wasted energy and dollars.

Value yourself in this process by valuing the fact that a university DESERVES to have you and you are going to be CHOOSY about who you send applications to because you VALUE yourself. Also value the top three qualities I mentioned above that all make up a “good” university. You know…the university that is “good” because it will allow you to thrive academically, socially and not graduate you with an obscene amount of debt.

Consider a few data points to get a sense of where you are not only competitive but the broader scope of university admissions.

Important to note: Each university has what’s called “institutional priorities.” These are priorities of the university that can fluctuate yearly and are almost impossible to predict. For example, a program that gets more funding, a push for more women in engineering, the number of musicians to fill, etc. Do the BEST that you can to create a balanced college list with and know that there is no exact formula or science to this. 

Back to data points:

  • GPA, SAT/ACT scores to see if you’re in the ballpark (again don’t get SO caught up in the GPA or test scores, but just see where you sit).
  • Selectivity. Know the percentage of students they accept. But also note the acceptance rates for things like early admissions vs. regular, ask if the university admits by the specific college/major within the university or as a whole, etc.


If you’ve done ALL of the research above you’ve not only convinced yourself as to why you’re applying to the university on your list, but you can also easily talk about it to others.

Remember that you are not going to please everyone around you. Nor should you WANT to. You’re the one being dropped off at the dorm, co-signing the loans and sitting in the lecture halls. You’re the one who will get excited about the campus environment and head out of your dorm room signing up for new adventures, but you could also be the one holed up inside stressed to the gills because it’s just not what you wanted.

Own this process. Own your reasons and allow others to have their own opinions…just don’t allow those opinions to own you.


2 responses to “The Secret to Finding AND Owning Your College List”

  1. […] The Secret to Finding AND Owning Your College List […]


  2. […] of following the rules and being strategic with your time. Yes, you want to ensure you apply to a balanced list of colleges. That’s super important. Once you have your college list, it’s time to get organized. […]


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