How to Make Your Best College List and the Ultimate Choice

Making a final college decision is daunting, but this advice from a real student can help you build a strong list of schools that you'll feel confident about.

While some of my friends were devastated when they were rejected by their dream schools during college decision season, I was surprisingly calm by the rejection letters. Thanks to the intense research I did before applying, I was satisfied with all the other schools that accepted me. I knew they were equally fitting to my personality and future aspirations, and they were all places I’d be happy to attend. That’s how you know you’ve conducted a successful college search! Here’s the process I followed to narrow down my college list and ultimately choose where to enroll. Hopefully it can make your own big decision that much easier.

Creating a list of schools to apply to

I still remember what most of my classmates and I did in 10th grade when my school counselor told us to create a sample list of colleges, categorized by “dream schools,” “reach schools,” and “safe schools”: we all went to the U.S. News & World Report site to check the rankings of the top schools in America. Our lives seemed to be dictated by the newest rankings published on this website. As an ambitious sophomore and a layperson in college applications, I instantly chose Columbia University as my dream school on the list (while others chose Harvard or Stanford), simply because of their top rankings. My counselors surprisingly lauded my choice, strongly reassuring me that I will be the first student from my school to get into my dream university if Columbia has a spot open. With their convincing reassurance in mind, I put all eggs in one basket, neglecting all other colleges besides Columbia. It wasn’t until I got rejected during the Early Decision round that I realized I could not solely base my college list on national rankings. I started allocating my time every day after school to research different colleges based on their research programs, majors, school environment, and activities I was interested in—not their spot on the “best college” lists. 

Researching colleges properly takes a lot of work. You have to take account of many different factors, which means you can’t rely on one particular resource too heavily. College ranking sites are usually where people get their references from, but I wouldn’t advise looking at them too closely. You should use ranking sites like U.S. News and Niche sparingly to get an idea of what schools are commonly deemed as reputable. Next, I recommend creating a document of schools that you’re interested in based on their location, size, student-faculty ratio, majors of interest, student organizations that resonate with your hobbies, and most importantly, supplemental essay questions. The right colleges must fit the criteria of the areas that matter to you the most. For example, if you want to stay and work near your college after graduation, then location, the local alumni network, and internship opportunities may be your top priority. Throughout this process, you might find your college list will fluctuate from time to time, and that’s completely normal. This is all about finding yourself and what you truly like, and not what adults think would be good for you. College research may appear strenuous, but it’s actually a unique chance for you to learn more about yourself. Take this opportunity to finally sit down and picture what your own future will look like over the next four years and beyond. 

Related: What Really Matters in Your College Search 

Looking for schools with academic flexibility

Unlike many of my classmates who are either interested in the sciences or the humanities, I personally have a strong passion in polar-opposite fields: medicine and creative writing. That’s why the word “interdisciplinary” stood out to me the most when I was looking at the unique qualities that make up each college. Hoping to further both of my interests, I ultimately chose the schools that offer the most flexibility for students to explore other majors, minors, and fields of study outside of their intended major. This is why I also applied to colleges that are more liberal arts based and multifaceted besides those that specialize in the biological fields. It’s crucial to find one particular overarching factor when you’re creating your college list. This will help you sort out the colleges that resonate with you the most and give you more insights when writing the “Why this college?” supplemental essay for each school.

Choosing which college to attend

Once I received my college acceptances, I instantly omitted some of the schools that I was unlikely to attend compared to the other schools I was accepted to. Then I categorized the colleges into two categories: liberal arts and interdisciplinary vs. specializing in the biomedical field. I also considered many other factors, such as each university’s focus on embracing students with cross-disciplinary interests, giving students the opportunity to be exposed to different fields of study other than their major, direct entry into the biological field based on the program I applied to, internships and hands-on experiences for undergraduates, etc. Your college research doesn’t end after you receive your decisions; in fact, that’s when your research matters the most. 

In-depth research about each school’s academics isn’t the only thing that’s critical; I strongly suggest consulting current students and asking about student life too. No matter how great your school’s program is, not being able to assimilate to the college environment will likely ruin everything. Moreover, I highly encourage you to solely consult those who give you valuable advice. While your friends or family may know you well, they probably don’t know a lot about the schools, programs, or environment you aspire to be in. While asking for other people’s advice may be helpful, at the end of the day, the decision is yours to make. Follow your heart and take the leap when you’re ready. 

Related: How to Tell If a College Is Right for You  

To this day, I still can’t say whether I made the right decision for college or not. But one thing is for sure: you should brace yourself for the ups and downs throughout the entire process. Allocate a lot of time to create, research, and categorize the colleges that resonate with you most based on your personality and interests, and don’t apply to schools simply because of where they land in the national rankings!

Looking for more reassurance on where to enroll? Check out all Our Best Advice on Making Your Final College Decision.

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About Po-Ting (Duke) Lin

Po-Ting (Duke) Lin

Po-Ting (Duke) Lin is a student at Northwestern University from Taipei, Taiwan. He's interested in both human biology and creative writing and currently pursues Economics and Business at college. Besides conducting research at the National Defense Medical Center, Duke is a founder of KidSpirit magazine's Taiwanese editorial board and an avid sharer who loves helping high schoolers with the college application process.


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