It’s that time of year: you’re working on your Common Application (or Coalition–we didn’t forget about you!), writing supplemental essays for multiple colleges, continuously revising your résumé—maybe a little obsessively—and repeatedly answering everyone’s question of “So where are you applying?”
With all the hard work that goes into the college application process, you want to make sure you’re doing it right. Some of you may be wondering, “Should I add more schools to my list?” Others might be considering cutting some out. Still others might be thinking, “Am I being too ambitious with my choices?”
Indeed, finalizing your college list is a lot of pressure! How can you make sure you end up with a list you’re proud of with schools that suit all your needs?
The Rule of Three
When compiling your list of schools, it’s important to make sure every college fits the Rule of Three; that is, for every college on your list, you should be able to come up with at least three reasons why you like it or believe it suits you well. If you can’t think of three factors that are pulling you toward the school, then is it really one you should apply to? So much energy and hard work is put into college applications, and you want to make sure you’re investing your time where it really counts.
Related: How Many Schools Should I Apply to?
What should I look for?
The truth is that different things matter to different people. For some, location plays a huge role—you may prefer a big city; a quiet, secluded campus; or something in between. While your initial reaction might be, “Why choose a college based on where it’s located?” it’s important to keep in mind that this is the place you will be living for four years. That’s not to say that location is the most important factor, but if, for example, you know that cities make you miserable, it’s probably best not to consider schools in the city.
Another important factor to consider is a school’s student-faculty ratio. If a school has a low ratio, it means their students get more individualized attention from professors. This can be really positive throughout your college journey. Do you want to be an individual who is noticed and recognized or just another number on a list?
When considering a college, you should also look into their career services. Do they have a strong career center that will connect you with internships or jobs? Will they advise you on how to build a strong résumé? Is this resource available to you even after you graduate? Even though your college years are an important phase of life, you also want to make sure you’re planning for the future.
Ambition is okay!
You want to apply to a school that’s a little out of your reach, but that tiny voice inside your head is saying, “I’ll never get in.” Sounds familiar?
The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with applying to “reach” schools that might be slightly outside your academic reach. Just because a school is an Ivy or boasts high academic standards doesn’t mean you won’t get accepted. In today’s day and age, most schools have what they call a “holistic” admission process. This means while grades and test scores are important, schools will look at you as an individual—not just as numbers or letters on a piece of paper. They’ll look at things like your essays, recommendation letters, extracurricular activities, and family background too. With all these factors in mind, they’ll try to build a picture of the real you—and who knows, maybe you’re just the person they’ve been looking for!
The “safety” school
Perhaps the most important element on everyone’s college list is a “safety” school. The Princeton Review describes a safety school as one where “your academic credentials exceed the school's range for the average first-year student.” In other words, your safety school should be a school where your grades might be a little better and your scores might be a little higher than those of most admitted students, thus allowing you to be fairly certain you’ll get in. Another important factor when considering a safety school is making sure it is a college that your family can afford, regardless of how much financial aid you end up securing.
Having a safety school doesn’t mean you doubt your chances of getting into the other colleges on your list. It’s simply a confirmation of the unfortunate truth that we affirmed earlier: that the college admission process can often be unpredictable! Thus, it’s important to have a school you can fall back on if you need to.
Also, when considering a safety school, remember that it, too, should be a place that follows the Rule of Three!
Related: How to Pick Your Safety, Reach, and Match Schools
At the end of the day, it’s hard to identify specific criteria for the “perfect” college list, since no student is exactly alike and different criteria are important to different people. If you have a list of schools that offer the education and environment you are looking for, then that’s a list you should be proud of.
Best of luck with your applications!