Choosing a college can be simultaneously one of the most exciting yet confusing times of a high school student’s life. On one hand, it gets exciting to daydream about campus life and attending classes in exciting and more personalized fields. On the other hand, it can feel stifling when reality hits, and it is time to assess application requirements and costs. Making a college list can support you in finding that balance between the fantasies and realities of college life. Let’s dive into how to begin and narrow down the process.
1) Assess what you already know.
You may think you don’t know anything about college or how to create a college list, but it’s important to remember that this process is all about you. You know yourself best! So, begin with what you know and ask yourself the following questions:
What am I interested in?
What do I enjoy doing when I have free time?
What do I feel passionate about?
How do I learn best?
What do I want my future to look like?
What image comes to mind when I picture an ideal college experience?
Do I know anyone who has gone through this process?
As you start to answer these questions, you may want to check out Niche, which allows you to cultivate a search for colleges to fit your personal set of criteria. They also contain handy rating lists of “bests” in a variety of categories such as “best professors,” “best value,” “best campuses,” and even “best college food”!
As you figure out which majors interest you, you may also want to check out Uprooted Academy's Youtube Page, where we have spoken to a variety of folks about the major(s) they have chosen and the career paths it has led them to.
Engaging in self exploration can give you a head start in creating your list as you begin to consider what schools would support you in exploring your passions in the way that you learn best. It can sometimes be hard to invite others into conversations about ourselves and our futures. However, it may feel easier once you’ve answered these questions, since it will lead you towards having a clearer idea of your perspective, needs, and desires that you can then share with others.
2) Talk to a school counselor.
Now that you’ve done some exploring on your own, you can support your guidance counselor to help you by sharing with them what you think your own personal strengths and weaknesses are and what fields of study/career paths sound interesting to you. Your guidance counselor may be able to help you begin your college list by suggesting some colleges that match your needs and interests. At the beginning your list can be wide, so add colleges to your list as they interest you! Don’t worry about any specifics just yet.
3) Record and organize college information.
Though it is fine to have a wider list at the onset of your process, it is important that you keep all of the information in one place and find a way to sort it. One method of doing this is creating a spreadsheet like the one below. Other folks prefer creating binders or folders containing each school's relevant information. Commit to consistently using a system that effectively fits your style as you learn more about each school.
4) Visit college fairs.
A fun way to learn more about the schools you are interested in is to engage with them! A good way to meet a few schools all at once is to attend a college fair. Connect with your counselor or search online to see if there are any upcoming college fairs or college information nights nearby. These are great opportunities to meet college representatives and speak to them personally about their college.
5) Go on college tours.
Visiting colleges can also be an exciting way to immerse yourself in envisioning yourself in college. Use the college list that you created to plan out a few college visits. Though you may not be able to visit every college on your list, we recommend that you visit a few colleges so that you can start to develop a sense about what you like about a campus environment. If possible, say yes to every opportunity you get to explore a college campus. Even if you know right away that you’re not interested, you may learn something new about yourself that can inform your choice.
6) Decide what matters most.
Once you have researched, engaged in conversations, and visited college campuses, it will likely be time to take a pause, evaluate what you have learned, assess if your priorities have changed, and narrow down your list. If you are using the spreadsheet method, it may be helpful to color code your list on “very interested”, “undecided”, and “definite no”. This way, you can begin to narrow your list without deleting any of the information you have collected, as it may come in handy later either for yourself or someone else!
7) Ensure you have a balanced list.
When narrowing your list, you will also want to ensure that you maintain a balance in your list of schools that you want to apply to. We recommend that your list include 1-2 “safety” schools, 2-4 “good matches,” and 1-2 “reaches.”
You can generally determine which category a school falls in by looking at the SAT or ACT score of last year’s freshman class. A “safety” school would then be a school in which your SAT or ACT score is higher than the average of last year’s freshman class whereas a “good match” would be a school in which you have just about the same score range and a “reach” would be a lower score than the average.
Remember that while ACT/SAT scores are important, colleges do consider the whole package in each application. Whether the school is a “safety,” “good match,” or “reach,” it’s important that you stay realistic about your chance of admittance, confirm that you would be satisfied in attending any of the options on your list, and that you are able to afford it.
8) Continue to evolve your idea of the “right college.”
As you decide what matters most and attempt to find balance, it’s important to be aware of any shifts you are making in your priorities. Maybe after visiting schools, some of the things you felt were important no longer feel so major and you have new things to add to your list that feel more crucial. That’s ok! It’s good to keep an open mind. This is all a process that leads you to learn more about yourself and the future you want to create.
9) Lean on your support system.
Your family, your community, your friends, and your teachers are there for you as you engage in this process. Even if you are the first and you feel like you are doing this alone, do not be afraid to lean on your support system. Your support system can be there for you in many ways– to listen, to share experience or advice, or to just be with and decompress. Sometimes it is helpful to name what you need from others before jumping into the conversation. For example, “hey, I am feeling really confused about this part of the process and need to figure out what the next step is” or, “I need to vent about something that frustrated me today, I don’t really need advice right now, but I would love it if you could hear me out.” These cues can help those around you rally around you in the ways you need.
10) Listen to your intuition.
It starts with the self and it ends with the self. The process started with you knowing yourself best and is going to end with you really listening to yourself and your intuition. After all the conversations, visits, comparing, and contrasting, you will have to decide which are the final schools you feel are worth the application. After all, you are the one who will be on campus, engaging in the classes, and, oftentimes, paying the tuition or student loans. Your decision may not be easy, but at the end of the day, it should feel right.
We hope that Uprooted Academy has provided some helpful strategies for you to tackle your college list. You may also want to check out our helpful Guide to Researching College. If you're still unsure about what to do, we can provide you with the tools to apply to college with confidence and success, including how to build your own college list. Get started with our FREE Step-by-Step College Advising Video Course.
We wish you the best of luck as you engage in this process!