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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Silbernagel

Five Steps to Building a Great College List

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

Research colleges

A good college list is the key to a successful application process. The characteristics that make a list "good" differ from student to student. But regardless of who you are, the ultimate goal is to have a balanced list of approximately 6-12 colleges. Undoubtedly, there will be a top school on your list, but strive to build what I call a happy list -- a list of colleges where you’ll be happy to attend in case that top choice doesn’t work out.

It’s a Process

The list-building process is just that -- a process. You will spend four years of your life at the college you end up attending, invest some time into your research. It doesn’t have to be done in one sitting. In fact, college list refinement is best done over time as you learn more about colleges and what you like or don’t like by researching, talking to people and visiting (either virtually or on-campus).

Five steps to help you build your college list

Step 1 - Look inward: Do the inner research: explore your goals, interests, and the qualities that will make a college right for you (your college priorities).

Step 2 - Be open: There are more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. Consider colleges you may not have heard of and look beyond where your friends might be applying. Challenge yourself to consider colleges that are not one of the 30 or so that have immediate name recognition. Stuck on the prestige “factor?” Keep in mind that value and prestige are not inextricably linked. There are many great colleges, the names of which you may not recognize, that provide an outstanding educational and social experience The Colleges of Distinction and Colleges that Change Lives are two great resources to find these gems.

Step 3 - Start big and go broad: Cast the net wide using one (or more) of the “big data” search engines like the College Board's Big Future, College Data, and College Navigator, which allow you to enter in general search criteria (location, size, type of school, majors, sports & activities, housing, cost, etc.). Depending on the criteria you enter, these search tools may yield a list of 50 or 100 or more schools. Refine the filters and remove any colleges that you know will not match your priorities (simply click on the college name to view its profile). But resist the urge to delete just because you don’t recognize the name.

Step 4 - Use qualitative/subjective sources: Once you’ve generated that initial, big list of colleges, spend some time cross-referencing with college data sources that provide beyond-the-numbers subjective data. My favorite is the List & Rankings search feature at CollegExpress.

This online search tool is based on the research found in The College Finder, by Steven Anotnoff, a book of college “lists” categorized by topic (e.g., athletics, academics, cost, career prep) or by interest (e.g. kosher kitchen, winning sports team, politically active student body).

These lists (whether you view them online or hardbound) provide a nuanced, qualitative perspective to your college search that will help you to identify colleges that meet your priorities in a way that the quantitative data provided by college search engines cannot.

The types of lists you'll find are endless. If you can think of a list category, you will probably find it -- there are lists for colleges that are “Great Engineering and Great Liberal Arts,” “Colleges with Great Pre-Med Programs,” “Colleges for the Independent Learner,” “Colleges with Strength in Women’s Water Polo,” and “Schools for the Intrepid Reporter," and "Colleges that are Alma Maters for Celebrity Chefs."

The List finder can help you add colleges to your list. Or you can use it to refine your initial list, which is step #5 the College List Building guide,

Step 5 - Research and refine: Now that you have the initial, big list of schools, it’s time to dig in and discover if the colleges meet your top college priorities and make the cut as you move toward a final list of 6-12 colleges to which you’ll ultimately apply.

Need suggestions on how to do that refining and researching? Read Part 4 of the College Research Series: Tips to Research Your College List.


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