How to Narrow Down Your College List

So many colleges, so little time to apply. Consider these tips to narrow down the choices on your college list and decide where you really want to go.

The first step in the college application process is knowing where to apply. Many students either have a long list of schools they’re interested in or a small list with a lot of questions about where else to look. The most important thing to remember is that every school you apply to should be a school you want to go to, where you could see yourself being happy. Take any schools off your list that don’t fit that requirement. If you have no schools in mind, there’s a really simple fix to this problem: use the CollegeXpress college search tool! This will allow you to search by different categories and preferences and introduce you to colleges that you could be interested in. Here's how you use it to narrow that list down based on the quesitons you need to ask.

How many schools should I apply to?

The average student applies to six to nine schools. Keep in mind that this is the average. If you’re applying to mostly highly selective schools, this number will probably be much higher. Your list of schools should be broken down by two or three (each) safety schools, target schools, and reach schools.

Safety schools are schools you know you have a good chance of getting admitted to. You’ve achieved above their minimum GPA and test scores, and they may have a higher acceptance rate. Target schools are schools right at your level. You’re qualified to get in, but it’s not guaranteed. The academic rigor of these schools is exactly at your level, and they may have a slightly lower acceptance rate than your safety schools. Reach schools are colleges and universities you’re not quite sure you’re qualified for, and they have the lowest acceptance rates of all the colleges you are applying to. For those applying to very selective schools, anything under 20% acceptance rate will most likely fall into your reach category, because even highly qualified applicants will be turned away.

Looking at your college list, break it down into these three categories. Do you have an abundance of reach schools and no safety schools? Cut out some of the reach schools and find safety schools that interest you. If you see that you have no reach schools and only target and safety schools, it’s okay to not apply to any reach schools. Remember, you’re trying to find a college where you’ll be happy; don’t apply anywhere just because you feel like you should.

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

How do I decide which schools to apply to?

Once you have your list broken down into each category, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is weather important to my college location? If so, what type of weather do I want?
  • Is class size important to me?
  • Is academic reputation important to me?
  • Do I want to meet new people, or do I want to already know people at the school?
  • How rigorous do I want the academics to be?
  • Do I want to live in the city or a rural/semi-rural area?
  • Am I okay being isolated?
  • Is diversity important to me?
  • Do I want a strong academic focus?
  • Are there certain clubs or programs that are important to me?
  • How much do athletics matter to me?
  • How close to home do I want to be?
  • Would I want to be easily able to come home on weekends and for important events or just holidays?
  • Am I interested in a certain major? Is this major only offered at some schools?
  • Do I care if my classes are taught by just professors or some graduate students too?
  • Do I have specific dietary needs?
  • Do I want to be on a large or small campus?
  • Do I want to have a car on campus?
  • Do I want to be a part of the Greek system?
  • Do I want to go to a school that is religiously affiliated?
  • How important are parties and socializing to me?

Assess your schools based on your answers to these questions. The schools that have most of your important criteria are the schools you should apply to!

Related: How to Know When Your College List Is Final 

What else can I do?

Make sure you’ve done as much research as possible on each school. The more you know, the better you can make sure it’s the right fit for you. Visiting a campus can give you a feel of the school that is extremely helpful in deciding whether or not you want to go there. Take a tour, sit in on some classes, and talk to current students. Unfortunately, some students can’t make it to college campuses. If that’s the case, check the school’s website to see if they have a virtual tour. This allows you to see the campus and learn more without having to leave your couch. If you have any questions, look for current students or admission officers you can contact. You can also search the website or ask admission representatives if there are any fly-in programs available to students.Many schools have webinars where you can get more information too. You can also attend college fairs and talk to admission officers at the booths. Make sure to prepare some questions beforehand to make the most out of your time there.

Related: 5 Things to Research Again Before Choosing a College

Narrowing down your college list is all about asking the right questions to arrive at the schools that are the best fit for you. Use this advice to guide you before sending off those college applications, and you're sure to find yourself at a great college after you graduate high school.

Need to start your college list? Or want to add a couple more safety and target schools? Our College Search tool can help.

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About Rebecca Barer

I am an avid reader, and I devote most of my time to writing and cooking. I also enjoy spending time with friends and family and generally enjoying life. I'm so excited to start at Johns Hopkins University this fall!


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