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How to Build the Perfect College List in High School

Whether you're an underclassman at the start of your search or a senior about to apply, these tips will help you organize and make your final college list.

You may be an eighth grader who already has your dream college picked out, or you might be going into senior year and still have no clue what you’re doing in terms of college applications. Chances are, you’re probably somewhere in between. In any case, making a college list is a good idea. It’s nice to keep your options open while still having a pretty good plan of what you’ll be doing come college application season. Wherever you are in the college search process, here are some ideas and tips that may be able to help!

Making a college list should be fun

This is the most important tip: ensure you have the right mindset. Sometimes researching college feels like a task you have to do for school or something you need to do in order to be successful (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Think of making your college list as exploring your options, an adventure on the internet to find out where you might want to be in a few years. And remember: relax. This isn’t something you need to cause yourself unnecessary stress about...don’t you have that history test next week for that?

When should you begin?

Many people say that “now” is a good time and “it’s never too early to start planning for college!” They aren’t wrong…but at the same time, it’s also never too late to look at schools either. For me, some of the colleges on my list were ones I decided I was going to apply to around freshman year. Others—two out of six, actually—I never even considered applying to until September and October of my senior year (a little more on that later).

Related: 8 Advantages of Starting Your College Search Early

Keep your options open

As my marching band director likes to say, “The march is a living, breathing entity.” For those of you musicians out there, your band or orchestra director has probably told you something along those lines, right? When it comes to the music, it isn’t just played over and over. Every rehearsal brings something new to the music: a crescendo here, a fortsando there. Maybe a new chord, or a fermata for additional drama. Whether you understood my analogy or not, the same goes for your college list. Your list is never complete—it’s not something you write up then leave alone and can’t touch for years. Sure, it’s good to have a starting point, but the initial colleges you choose won’t necessarily be the ones you feel are right for you when you do end up applying. Of course, you’ll hear new names that you might want to look into...and if they seem right for you, it’s a good idea to put them on the list.

Definitely, maybe, probably not…

That’s not quite the saying, but I would suggest having three different categories on your list: Definitely, Maybe, and Probably Not. Don’t be shy to shift schools between the three categories! Especially if your list is typed, all you need to do is copy and paste your information into a different category. These categories are pretty self-explanatory, but here are my short little qualifications for each.

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

"Definitely" schools

This school checks most (or all!) of your boxes; as of right now, they are one of your top choices. (I would keep about four to eight schools in this category, though it’s totally up to you!)

"Maybe" schools

This school checks most of your boxes, but you’re not entirely sure how much you would love it. (Tip: If you haven’t already, you should try to visit these schools in person to get a better feel!) Once the time comes, you might apply, but you might not.

"Probably not" schools

This school checks some of your boxes, but you're not super excited about it. Still, though, it's important to be open-minded and give yourself options. (I put schools that I wouldn’t put anywhere else on the list in this category.) All the schools you ultimately apply to should be ones that you’d be happy to attend if you get accepted! So if you could never see yourself happy there—even as a safety school/backup plan—leave it off your list entirely.

What should you include on your list?

Universities and colleges, of course! I kept basic information on the list so I had a quick facts sheet (you can normally just copy and paste from the college’s admission page or the College Board or CollegeXpress profile). Our College Search Spreadsheet Template is a great way to get organized and keep track of all the important factors to you!

Related: How to Stay Organized in Your College Search

See? Making your college list isn't as hard as it seems. If you're an underclassman, it's never too early to start and really give yourself time to figure out what you want. And if you're a senior, it's never too early to get it together and find a great college to attend next year. Now go forth and conquer...we believe in you!

Find more great articles and advice on the college search process in our College Admission section!

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