How to Create a College List

Creating a college list is the first, most basic step in the college application process. Not only does it help a student develop goals, but it also helps to inspire action. Once a student has solidified a goal, working to complete essays becomes much easier.


If you’re wrapping up your junior year, you’re probably giving thought to creating a college list. Maybe you’ve had a dream school in mind for years. Maybe this is the first time it has come up. But in any case, creating a college list can be tricky. In this article, we will outline a strategic and personal approach for you to follow. Doing so will allow you a solid chance of admission, oftentimes to a school even higher than you planned for.

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Strategy for Creating a College List

While many resources will tell you to apply to only six schools, The Admissions Angle approach to college lists is “high and wide”. We encourage students to reach for the stars on several of their choices while applying to as many schools as your time and means allow for. The reasoning behind this is simple. It is impossible to predict the exact metrics a college is using to admit students year to year, and it is impossible to know how you may or may not fit into their scheme. Every admissions officer is different, and just because you don’t get into one reach school does not mean you will not get into any reach school. In the past, we’ve worked with students who gain admissions to multiple Ivy League colleges, but are rejected from UC Berkeley. Why? The student clearly possessed something that the Ivies were interested in that UC was not. To an extent, college admissions is a numbers game, so the more places you apply, the better your chances of getting into at least one. Plus, you only apply to colleges once in your life. Why leave any stone unturned?

Unfortunately, this strategy means that rejection is inevitable. The more schools you apply to, the more rejections you will receive. It helps to accept this truth early on in the process. Rejections are difficult and can warp our senses of self worth. Try not to let this happen. If you do your due diligence, you will get into a solid school that is a good fit for you.

“Every admissions officer is different, and just because you don’t get into one reach school does not mean you will not get into any reach school.”

How Many Schools Should I Apply to?

Dream schools (Choose 1-2):
This is the school that you put on the list so that you don’t have regrets later in life. However, try to be somewhat reasonable. If your dream school is Stanford but you have a 3.0 GPA and a 1000 SAT, then it’s definitely not worth writing all of those essays for a chance that is effectively zero. However, if your baseline GPA and scores fall within the acceptable range (think 25th percentile), take your shot! After all, it would be a dream if you got in. 

Reach schools (Choose 4-6):
These are schools in which you should possess a less than 25% chance of getting in. We advise applying to as many reach schools as you have time for, because as we said before, you may have the exact qualities that a particular admissions officer is looking for. Give it a try! The more reach schools you apply to, the better your odds are of gaining admissions to at least one– and one is all you need. 

Target schools (Choose 3-4):
These schools are colleges where you possess a 25-75% chance of getting in based on your scores and grades. If you are looking at the school’s admissions portfolio and thinking “that sounds like me,” then that school is a target. You don’t need to apply to loads of target schools if you have assessed them properly and determined that these are the schools you’re most likely to choose if not accepted to any reach schools. .

Safety schools (Choose 2-3):
As with target schools, you don’t need to apply to too many safety schools if they are, indeed, safeties. These should be schools where you have an 75% or better chance of getting in. When you look at the profiles for these schools, your profile should fall at the high end of what they look for. You only need a couple because you’ll get in anyways (in addition to some of your target schools and maybe a reach). If you have extra energy and want to keep applying, go for another reach, not another safety.

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Where Do I Start?

The first step for creating a college list is to start big, with a list of 10-20 schools. Consider any schools that have piqued your interest based on recommendations, research, and location. There are many tools that exist to help students match with certain schools based on their interests, as well. In this step, write down the name of every school that has ever appealed to you, even if you don’t think you’ll get in.

Second, engage in heavy research. Go through each school on your list and make sure that it possesses each of the qualities you are looking for. More on that in the next section.

Personal Factors for Creating a College List

Now that you know how many colleges to aim for, let’s return to your big list and begin to narrow it. This part is quite complex, as each student is completely different in the factors that they’re considering for their undergraduate experience. This section will discuss the important items to research. As you are engaging in research, take notes– this information will be important when you write your essays.

Prestige or School Rank
Whether you agree with it or not, having a degree from a top-ranked university will help with your job prospects or ability to get accepted to a graduate program. Top universities don’t necessarily provide the best education, but they do provide the best perception of having received the best education.

Having an Ivy League+ degree undoubtedly opens doors that otherwise would not even be on your radar. If your goals are ambitious – let’s say you want to be a Supreme Court Justice, you will have a difficult time making this come true if you don’t attend either Harvard or Yale Law Schools. All nine current justices graduated from either of these institutions. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to attend these schools as an undergrad, but your undergraduate degree will have an influence on your ability to get accepted to one of these law schools.

For most students who don’t have such high ambition, there’s still an advantage to attending a top college, especially if you are in a humanities program. For STEM programs, this advice is not quite as convincing, as success in finding a job after graduation can be still quite high. The reward for choosing a dramatically cheaper undergraduate education can be well worth the cost of prestige for those entering the STEM field.

Location and weather
Do you want to stay close to home, or do you want to move across the country? Are you looking for an urban environment or someplace more pastoral? How important to you is weather? Could you live without the snow? Could you live with the snow?

Let the location of a school influence your list, but don’t let it limit your research too much. You might not think Texas is the place for you, but have you ever looked at the Rice campus? It’s gorgeous. Think about your comfort, but also think about your opportunities. If a vibrant theater scene is important to you, then will you be happy somewhere remote?

For target and safety schools, I’d say that location is the most important factor to keep in mind. The first, most obvious Beyond just the ranking of a school’s program, I’d also strongly consider the job market of the local area. Beyond the top 40 schools, geographic location relative to the job market you want to eventually join is a huge factor in determining how successful you will be. For example, do you know which university has the most number of graduates working in the Silicon Valley? San Jose State University. Think about it. When companies are looking to hire, it’s easiest to first look around at the talent closest to them and SJSU happens to be right smack in the middle of Silicon Valley.

Major or academic program
What’s your intended major? Or, if you don’t know exactly what you want to study, what are you leaning towards? Some schools are more competitive for certain subjects than others, so knowing what major to apply for can make a big difference. 

A good way to consider this question is to google “name of school + undergraduate admission statistics.” Sometimes, a chart like this one will pop up. Carnegie Mellon is a great college for this example because it ranks #25 overall for undergraduate admissions, but ranks #5 for business and #6 for undergraduate engineering. Nationally, it ranks #2 in computer science. Consider what this means for admissions. Overall, Carnegie Mellon admits only 7% of students who apply to the School of Computer Science, but 24% and 26% to the College of Humanities and Information Systems, respectively. What does this mean for your admissions? Essentially, if you really want the Carnegie Mellon experience, then consider applying to a less competitive program. If you have your heart set on a top ranking computer science program, then treat the Carnegie Mellon program as a “dream/reach” slot on your list and proceed accordingly. 

Extracurricular activities and student life
Are there certain extracurricular activities that are important to you? This question is helpful not only for making your college list, but also for applications. In the Why Us essay, the college asks “Why do you want to attend our school?” If you are an a capella aficionado, then choosing a school that offers a lot of a capella opportunities can be powerful material. If you’re looking for undergraduate business incubators, there are a handful of schools that have significant resources at your disposal. Make sure to research the student organizations and opportunities available to undergraduate students.

Do you want to be a college athlete and compete competitively for the college? What division will you consider? If you don’t want to participate competitively, do you want to play in a specific intramural or club sport? Having a good idea of what you are looking for in college athletics will help you narrow down your list, and help you know which coaches to write to.

On the other hand, maybe you are a passionate spectator. Is it important to you to attend a school with a big football or basketball culture? This reasoning should probably not be the primary focus of your application materials (which should lean heavily academic). But peppering in some examples of your fandom couldn’t hurt. 

Religious affiliation
Do you want to attend a college with a religious affiliation? You don’t have to be religious to attend a college with a religious affiliation. However, if the affiliation is important to you, then looking for such colleges will significantly narrow your list. Consider that religious colleges may have specific requirements, such as attending certain religious classes as a graduation requirement or a stricter code of conduct. 

Student body size
Do you want to go to a college that is the size of your high school or the size of a city? Or, somewhere in the middle? Remember that the size of a school is not necessarily indicative of the student:professor ratio. Many large colleges still keep this proportion reasonable, which is good information for your essays. However, the size of a school can definitely impact the vibe.

For minorities, keep in mind that larger schools will usually have more diversity than smaller schools. If it’s important to you to surround yourself with people with similar backgrounds to you, then definitely keep in mind the size and location of the student body.

Is there some other factor that you require on a college campus? Maybe you want a cutting edge gym facility, or excellent career opportunities. Maybe you’re looking for the best internship or undergraduate research opportunities. Or maybe you need a school that is equipped to accommodate a disability or specific dietary need. Whatever it is, make sure to include it in your preliminary research! It would be terrible to be halfway through the application process before realizing that a school is unviable for you. 

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Finances and your college list

Finances can be the top determinant of choosing where to apply to college. When creating a college list, it is important to have state school options, and to think about financial aid from the start.

First, we recommend calculating your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) to see how much colleges will be expecting you to pay. This tool will also help you know how much aid you are eligible for. 

Second, educate yourself on need-blind vs. need-aware admissions. Need-blind means that a school will not look at your financial situation when considering you for admissions. Need-aware means that they will. This is a vast oversimplification of this distinction, so it is worth investigating. But the simple truth is this: whether or not you need financial aid can impact your admissions chances. Students willing to pay full-price will have an easier time gaining admission than those looking for aid. Should this stop you from applying? No. Should it help you develop a realistic outlook on your odds? Yes.

Plan to diversify your schools based on cost, as well as the above factors. Doing so should give you options down the line.

(Side note: At the time of writing this, coronavirus is expected to impact financial aid in the coming years. As colleges continue to lose revenue, they will be looking to admit even more full-price students than before. If this describes you, then consider expanding your college list to include more dream and reach schools.)

Concluding thoughts

As you plan your college list, consider that getting a head start is more important than ever before. Once the fall semester has started, grades will be critically important, as will extracurricular activities. The more you can do now to prepare yourself, beginning with a college list, the better off you’ll be. 

The best thing you can do for yourself is find an adult you trust to guide you through this process. That person may be a parent, a counselor, or a mentor, but anyone to help hold you accountable and offer support will be helpful. If you have a strong support system and the will to prepare, you will go far! Good luck!