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    How to Put Together a College List That Finds the Perfect Fit

    Posted August 7, 2018, 12:00 pm
    Diverse group of college students with laptops.

    Did you know there are more than 4,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States? That can make choosing a college overwhelming. But there is a college to fit your dreams – and finding it starts with the right list of schools where you plan to apply.

    Your college list is the basis for every decision regarding college. Without a good list, it’s impossible to make a clearly logical and well-informed college choice. You should begin your college list during your junior year of high school. By the beginning of your senior year, you should have a final list for college applications.

    The “Fit” Questions

    How do you start a dream list? A good college list should have three “fit” criteria: financial fit, academic fit and emotional fit. Consider each school by asking these “fit” questions:

    • Financial Fit

    Does the college fit into your family’s budget? If it doesn’t fit financially, cross it off the list. While you should never consider a college solely based on the sticker price, you should certainly examine what will happen if you are accepted but do not receive any financial aid.

    • Academic Fit

    Does the college fit into your academic aspirations? This might seem like a no-brainer, but education is a key factor in attending college. Cross the college off the list if it doesn’t fit into your college major goals or academic learning style.

    • Emotional Fit

    Can you see yourself attending college there? When you visit the campus, does it “feel” right, and do you have a rapport with the students you meet? You might think college shouldn’t be an emotional decision, but it is. If you don’t fit into the social climate, you will be miserable. If you aren’t “feeling it,” cross it off your list.

    Seven More Questions to Use as a Reality Check

    Once you’ve answered the “fit” questions, dig deep and ask yourself these questions:

    • Are you choosing a college to follow a boyfriend or girlfriend? High school romances rarely last.
    • Are you choosing a college to follow a best friend? This might be about anxiety. Be assured there will be new friends in college!
    • Are you choosing a college because you follow the sports team? College is expensive, and academics should be a priority.
    • Are you choosing a college because it’s “fun”? Too much partying equals academic failure.
    • Are you choosing a college because of location? Staying close to home – or being determined to go far away – can limit options unless it’s a financial or family issue.
    • Are you choosing a college because of its reputation? Just because a college has a famous name doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for you.
    • Are you choosing a college based on someone else’s opinion? Never assume anything about a college until you visit and see for yourself.

    Divide Your College List Into These Categories

    Once you’ve answered all those questions, you’re ready to begin your list, which should always include the Dream Team, the Best Bets and some Sure Things (also known as reach schools, best fit schools and safety schools).

    ● The Dream Team

    Many high school students believe that attending a college with a “name” guarantees success. but the best college is the college that fits your personal academic, social and financial goals. It could be a “name,” but it most likely won’t be. Those colleges have very low acceptance rates. I’m all for dreaming, but when it comes to a college list, practicality and logic reign. Your dream colleges should be a reach but not impossible.

    ● The Best Bets

    The colleges on this part of the list are colleges that would put you at the top of the applicant pool. Of all the reasons to apply to a certain school, this is the most logical. After careful research, these colleges should be ones that offer everything on your list: financial aid, academic fit and an emotional connection. It’s not all about the money, but money sure does make the final decision easier.

    ● The Sure Things

    Many students add colleges on a whim just because they can’t decide. This happens often when choosing safety schools. These colleges could end up being one of the colleges that offer you admission or offer the most financial aid. Carefully consider the choices and make sure that these colleges are colleges you really want to attend. It will relieve pressure and stress if they offer you admission.

    Consider This Important College Data

    Now that you know which colleges to put on your college list, how do you choose the right ones? What criteria do you use to populate your list? Where do you find the best information, or statistics, to help you make your list?

    Two good sources for college statistics are College Navigator and College Data. These two resources will help you make an informed college choice. Numbers aren’t everything, but consider these important stats when you are looking at schools


    There is always a great deal of emphasis on college rankings, but use rankings wisely to begin creating a college list. U.S. News Best Colleges is the most popular and widely used. You can also try the ETC College Rankings Index from Educate to Career and the Niche College Rankings as a base for beginning research. Never rely solely on one set of rankings. Use the comparison tools to make a wise college choice.

    Financial aid percentages

    If you need financial aid to attend college, these statistics are important. How much aid a college awards to its students is reported and tabulated each year. If you need financial aid, a college with a low percentage of merit aid should be eliminated from your list.

    Acceptance rates

    Harvard is the oldest and most prestigious university in the country. Its name is instantly recognizable and equated with excellence. It is also highly selective. The college offers admission to about 5 percent of applicants each year. Even students with all A’s and perfect SAT scores don’t get in.

    However, there are many other fine colleges that offer a great education and accept far more than 5 percent. College truly is for everyone. If you are an average student, don’t despair. Look for the colleges that will recognize potential and see you as a viable applicant. Look for colleges with high acceptance rates. Better yet, look for the colleges where you would be a top applicant in the applicant pool. This translates into more merit aid in the financial aid package.

    Faculty-student ratio

    If you have trouble focusing in classes, are intimidated by large crowds or need more personal instruction to be academically successful, a large state university with intro classes taught by grad students might not be a good fit. There are plenty of small liberal arts colleges with great academic records and majors where you’re likely to receive more personal attention. But, if you’re looking at a big school, consider the size of the program that interests you. You may get more personalized attention in a major with fewer students.

    Freshman retention rate

    As many as one in three first-year students don’t return for sophomore year. The reasons run the gamut from family problems and loneliness to academic struggles and a lack of money. If schools you’re considering have a low freshman retention rate, there’s a reason. Some colleges do a great job of taking care of their freshmen; some don’t.

    Graduation rate

    Did you know that graduation rates differ widely? About 400,000 students drop out of college each year. When you research the college, look up their graduation rates. Low rates could be a red flag. Graduation rates don’t necessarily determine the quality of a degree; yet students who start college but don’t finish are typically no better off professionally and financially than those who never even started, and in some cases, if they took on debt, might be worse off.

    Average indebtedness

    Even if you graduate, it’s no guarantee you will secure a job; at least not one that will pay enough to cover high student loans. If the average student indebtedness is high, and you need financial aid, this college might not make the final list.

    Percentage of students employed after graduation

    If you graduate and can’t find a job, it’s going to be a tough road ahead. Colleges with strong alumni networks and active career centers will have a high percentage of employment after graduation. Colleges with a high percentage of unemployed graduates should be avoided by students who need to incur high student loan debt.

    Other Important Stuff to Think About

    * Study styles: Are you more comfortable in a structured class or doing independent study? Do you require an academic challenge or prefer in-class time with little or no additional study?

    • Money: Your budget plays a huge factor in the decision process. If your budget is tight, will you consider student loans? And if so, will an expensive private university be worth the debt?
    • Size: Do you want small class sizes, or does it matter? Is being part of a large student body appealing, or is an intimate setting better?
    • Location: Do you want to go away to college or stay close by or even live at home? Are you looking for a cultural experience that a big city offers or a down-home experience provided by a small-town college?
    • Extracurriculars: Are you set on joining a sorority or a fraternity? Are these offered at the schools on the list? Are there other activities that are crucial to having a positive college experience (for example, working on a campus newspaper, participating in intramural sports, studying abroad)?
    • Academics: Is there a specific major you are interested in, or will a liberal arts degree do? Not every university offers the same academic disciplines.
    • Career focus: Do you want to study the culinary arts or fashion design? Do you need to consider a school that offers these types of specialized degrees?
    • Sports: Does the school have a huge sports program, or do sports have little impact on your decision?
    • Competitive or noncompetitive: Do you have the resume that will ensure acceptance to a competitive college like Stanford or Princeton? Or would you be better using a strong academic showing to go to the top of the list at a less-competitive college and qualify for a full or partial scholarship?
    • Specialized programs: Do you want to work in a specific field? Do you want the opportunity to do internships, undergraduate research, service learning or even specialized senior capstone projects?

    As you can easily see, there’s more to refining a college list than picking a college with Greek life or college sports rankings. It’s a place you will call home, and you need to feel comfortable there. Once you’ve determined that a college meets all your criteria, add it to the list. It’s a keeper!

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