Building Your College List

Creating An Authentic Balance in Your College List

by | Sep 14, 2020

Creating a college list can be an intimidating process. It feels as if a whole life depends on making the “right” decision for both parents and students. For some students, that can create overwhelming pressure. The annual release of rankings can create additional pressure to get into the “best” college. And in the era of COVID-19, the fact that you can’t visit colleges makes the process even more challenging.

To make a good college list, focus on finding good fits, rather than chasing after the highest-ranked colleges. Rankings are arbitrary and don’t reflect an institution’s real educational quality. Find an authentic balance: of likelihood, cost, earnings, educational program, culture, and other factors.

That means balancing different goals: finding a school you can afford, a school that matches your cultural and educational objectives, a school whose education will allow you to earn a good living, and a school that will admit you.

The most important key is to start early. If you start putting together a long list of colleges in your sophomore year, you will have plenty of time to take virtual tours and maybe (eventually) even visit some of your choices in person. That way, you can develop a sense of what would fit you. College shopping is a little like buying a house. Sometimes you don’t know what you like until you see it.

Focus on Cost, Likelihood, and Earnings

As you create your college list, focus first on the critical criteria: cost, likelihood, and earnings. Focusing on these criteria might seem counterintuitive, but they will help you avoid disappointment and difficulty building your college list. Specifically:

  • Likelihood: A good college list maximizes both your opportunities and your likelihood of admission. Your chance of the worst case outcome, being admitted to none of your choices, should be less than 1%. At the same time, it’s vital to apply to some colleges that are “reaches” for you.
  • Cost: College is extremely expensive. If you don’t prioritize cost as an initial factor, you could get into colleges you can’t afford to attend. So have honest conversations about money. Start with this question: how big a check can we afford to write each year without significantly affecting our standard of living?
  • Earnings: College isn’t all about getting a job. A liberal arts education can help broaden your horizons and teach critical skills–like critical thinking and communications. But getting a good job is a big reason why many people apply to college. The Department of Education has data on the prospective earnings of graduates. Factoring these earnings into your search can help.

Tools like LifeLaunchr’s College Match can help you create a list that takes cost, likelihood, and earnings into account.

Widen Your Search

Too many students start the search by only considering schools in their area, state universities in their state, or colleges they hear about from family and friends. There are thousands of universities in the United States (and many more abroad). So you’re well served by casting a wide net and looking at all the universities that meet your criteria. Use this approach to create your “long” college list of about 20 colleges.

Once you have created your long college list, use tools like virtual tours. If possible, visit schools in person to understand which might be the best fit for you. Consider what programs they offer and how those can help you achieve your goals.

And ask how the culture at the university fits your needs. Some colleges are extremely competitive, while others stress collaboration. Some have detailed curricula, while others allow students to create their programs. Speak with admissions officials and understand what makes the college distinctive.

Expanding your search and focusing on likelihood, cost, and earnings can help narrow down your long list to create your final “short” college list of about ten schools. At LifeLaunchr, we recommend the ten schools include three “reach” colleges, four “target” colleges, and three “likely” colleges. 

For many people, getting professional help in creating your college list can be valuable, as it can provide the context that the search requires.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this article appeared in the Edmodo blog on Medium at this link.


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Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan (Swami) is the founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, the world's first virtual college admissions coaching platform, and a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Swami has been an executive in the education and technology industries for over 25 years. He has an M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois, and a B.Tech in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He is the father of a child in college, and in his spare time, he is a jazz and Indian classical singer and pianist.

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