Making Your College List: 5 Important Tips to Remember

Test prep and admissions counselor Dan Edmonds offers high school Juniors advice on how to build your college list in 5 easy steps and reminds us that it's all about learning what schools are out there and which schools will work for you!

It's no secret that the junior year in high school is the most challenging year most students will face before college. SATs and ACTs and Subject Tests and APs. The most important year for grades. And schools leadership positions. And sports performance. So much pressure--academic, social, athletic--is concentrated in the space of just a few months, it's amazing how gracefully most of my students (and their parents) handle it.

So it comes almost as a surprise, I think, that on top of all of this, as the junior year draws to a close, that rather than exhaling and relaxing, the pressure starts all over again: make your college list. Visit schools. Write essays. Fill out applications. Decide what schools to apply to Early Decision (or Early Action). An entirely new list of stress-inducing tasks comes along, usually before everything on the first list is even taken care of.

In the interest of trying to make constructing that college list a little easier, here are 5 pieces of advice:

  1. Think fit first.

People are trained--almost too well--to talk about "reach," "target," and "safety" schools (more on those categories later). But the first consideration when you build your college list should be fit. What kind of school are you looking for? There are a great many categories to consider here, from size to location, from academic rigor to social scene, from religion to sports to fraternities to politics. Decide what is most important to you before you even start to think about particular schools to put on your list. Learn more about why "fit" matters in my previous post.

  1. Talk to your guidance counselor.

Your guidance counselor is useful in this search for a lot of reasons, but chief among them are that (a) she will know a LOT more schools than you've ever even heard of, and (b) she will have strong relationships with particular schools, and may be able to increase your odds of getting into those schools. So after you've gone through step one, go to your guidance counselor with a list of what's important to you and she can help you produce an initial list.

If you don't have an SAT or ACT score yet, your counselor will use your PSAT to estimate your SAT/ACT score. If you've been prepping for the SAT/ACT, let your guidance counselor know what your latest scores are on practice tests, as that should lead to adjustments to your list (since those scores are presumably higher than your PSAT's were!).

  1. Do your own research.

In addition to talking to your guidance counselor, do your own research. Use the college Wizard right here at noodle.org and see what schools we'd recommend. Pick up a couple of solid guidebooks to learn more about the schools you find most intriguing. If you can manage it, visit a few schools. Your initial list will likely be much longer than your final list. That's ok! Check out the possibilities ,whether through books, online, or in person, and learn as much as you can about them.

  1. Keep an open mind.

I promise that you haven't heard of all the best colleges and universities in the country. I promise that there are several schools that would be a great fit for you that you've never heard of before in your life. Keep an open mind. Whatever your preconceptions are about what the right school is for you will change as you go through this process. Let those changes happen!

  1. There is no such thing as a safety school (or a dream school).

I've always hated the category "safety." It seems so negative. There is only one real category of school: schools you think you'll be happy at. Make sure that every school you apply to falls into that category. Now, you should make sure one or two of those schools are places you are almost certain you'll get into. You should make sure a few are places where you have a reasonable shot, but are not a sure thing. And you should make sure to include at least a couple of schools where you are a longshot candidate (longshot: not no shot!). But a "safety" school is too negative a characterization, and a "dream" school makes it sound like it's the only place you'd really be happy. Don't use those terms!

There's a lot more to say about the whole process, but hopefully this will help you get the ball rolling. This summer, Noodle will be offering a series of posts on the actual application process (largely focused on writing a killer essay); stay tuned to learn a lot more about getting into one of the schools that is the right fit for you!

Previously: Does College Prestige Matter?

Next: 5 Most Selective Public Colleges in the U.S.

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