7 Ways to Narrow Down Your List of College Choices

Choosing a college can be overwhelming, but these tips will help you narrow your search and figure out exactly where you want to go.

When you start to think about all the places you could go to college, do the number of choices start to pile-up until it seems like a mountain in danger of an avalanche? Choosing a college can be overwhelming, but these tips will help you narrow your search and figure out exactly where you want to go.

1. Flip your perspective

Instead of asking yourself “where do I want to go to college?” ask, “where do I not want to go to college?” This simple mental shift can help you start breaking down that mountain into a small hill. Colleges comes in many different specialties, sizes, and areas of expertise. There are public, private, small, large, all-female, all-male, close to home, far from home, rural, urban, liberal arts, and so many more college options. Once you’ve crossed a few choices off that list, you’ll actually have a manageable number to work with.

Your next goal is to come up with a list of 20 colleges that fit the list that’s left over. So maybe you chose a small school that focuses on academics and is located in a big city. Once you’ve found 20 schools that fit that description, you can use the following tips to narrow your list even further.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to the College Search: How to Find Your Perfect College Match

2. Gather more information

Once you’ve got your list of ideal schools narrowed down to the top 20 or so, start gathering some more information. Look at school websites and write down pros and cons for each. You can gather information from school websites, from sites like Colleges of Distinction (or our guidebook), from teachers and counselors at your high school, and even from family and friends. Remember that it’s okay to change your mind as you learn more information about the final colleges on your list. Maybe your favorite school doesn’t have the program you need to get the job you want. It’s also okay to shift your list around as you learn more about colleges and what to expect from a school.

3. Pick your favorites

Once you have your pros and cons lists, begin comparing the different schools and choose your top five favorites. Within your list of five favorites, choose schools with a range of qualities. Have a dream school, have a school that’s financially affordable, and have a school where your grades meet all of the requirements and you have a high likelihood of being accepted—aka your safety, reach, and match schools.

Related: How to Pick Your Safety, Reach, and Match Colleges 

4. Remember the ultimate goal

The ultimate goal of choosing a college is to graduate with a degree that will get you a good job or into the graduate school of your choice. Just because your dream school has a great football team doesn’t mean it’s the right school for you. One way to assess if you’re likely to graduate or not is to look at the college’s graduation rate. Schools with a graduation rate within four and six years are usually more likely to support students and help them meet the requirements to graduate. Schools with low graduation rates may have less built-in support for students. Ideally, look for schools with graduation rates above 60%.

5. Go on campus visits

The best way to learn about a college is to visit the campus, take a tour, and, if possible, stay the night with current students. When visiting a potential college, you can also set up meetings with professors who teach a subject you’re interested in. It may also be helpful to speak with an admission officer who can help you understand the application process and the school’s admission requirements too.

If a campus visit isn’t possible, look for photos or virtual tours online. A campus visit is also an opportunity to meet with current students and ask questions. Some colleges even have phone lines you can call to talk to current students. If you have this opportunity, prepare a list of campus visit questions ahead of time, and don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions that are really important to you. Remember, all current college students were once prospective students graduating from high school.

Related: Which Colleges Should You Visit in Person? 9 Things to Consider

6. Look at acceptance rates

An important metric to consider when applying to colleges is the acceptance rate. There’s nothing wrong with applying to Harvard and Yale, but it’s important to recognize that their acceptance rate is extremely low. It’s unlikely that you’ll be accepted even if you have the highest grades in your school—or even in your state. (You can put these schools squarely in your “reach” category.) Look for colleges that have acceptance rates above 20% for a higher chance of being accepted, and remember that most colleges, including plenty of great schools, admit more students than they reject.

7. Find financial safety

Whether or not a college is affordable is relative to your family’s income, your savings, the scholarships and grants you receive, and the cost of classes and activities at that college. Consider too the cost of traveling to and from college for holidays and school breaks. When looking for financially safe schools, try to stay within your budget, which includes the amount you and your family can pay combined with the amount of scholarship you receive. Loans are always an option, but are costly to pay back.

Related: Scholarship FAQ: Expert Advice to Start Your Search With Confidence

Hopefully, these tips will help you narrow down your college choices and really home in on what’s important to you in the college of your choice.

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About Tyson Schritter

Tyson Schritter is the Chief Content Officer for Colleges of Distinction. He is responsible for providing tips and advice for the college bound community. As a member of the Colleges of Distinction qualification team, Tyson has been visiting college campuses and interviewing college staff across the country for the past seven years. He brings those years of experience to helping students find a college or university that is the right fit for them and that helps them learn, grow and succeed.

A graduate of the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, Tyson received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Prior to joining Colleges of Distinction, Tyson worked at several non-profits in the Washington DC area doing outreach and communications.

Tyson writes for the Colleges of Distinction Resource section and has been recently published on Huffington Post, Higher Ed Revolution, and Campus-News.org.


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