There are thousands of colleges and universities out there; narrowing them all down to a list of schools you want to apply to is a big and important task. College is a big investment and even applying to schools takes time and money. It's key to be thoughtful about which schools to put on your list, and which to skip.
There are a four common mistakes students make when crafting their college list. Knowing what these missteps are can help you avoid these pitfalls and create a list of schools that you're excited to apply to, and attend.
The first place many people turn when making any big decision is the people they know and trust. It may be tempting to apply to the same schools as your best friend, or the college your parents attended and still talk about all the time. But choosing where to go to college is a personal and nuanced decision. The best school for your friends, neighbors, or family members may not be the best college for you. In fact, it probably isn't.
“It's understandable because students may have only heard of those schools, and we all rely on firsthand recommendations when making big decisions," said Jodi Siegel, a college admissions consultant with College Bound in Potomac, Md., and former admissions officer at George Washington University. “However, most students don't have a good grasp of whether those schools would actually be a good fit for them."
Instead of applying to the schools your friends and family love, get clear on what you're looking for in a college. Do you want a school with a thriving Greek scene, or a more studious or artsy vibe? Are you more comfortable in small, discussion-based classes, or large lectures? Would you rather play intramural frisbee, or tailgate before a big football game? Do you want to live in a dorm on bucolic campus, or in an apartment in a big city? And perhaps most importantly, what subjects do you see yourself studying, and what courses, professors, research and study abroad opportunities are offered in those areas?
Be sure you can answer these questions, and more, for all of the schools on your list. You may find that the schools your friends and family love have everything you're looking for, in which case their endorsement is another item to add to the "pros" column. But before following in their footsteps, be sure to take the time to tune into what you really want, so you can be sure you're marching to the beat of your own drum.
Once you've gotten a better idea of what you want in a school, do as much research as possible. Don't rely on what you've heard about a school, or what someone who graduated years ago says about the dorms, or the best majors. Schools are adding new faculty, areas of study, and facilities all the time, so it's important to seek out the most up-to-date information about each school you're interested in.
Visiting schools is a great way to get a sense of the environment and culture, but if you can't visit, there are lots of virtual resources for learning more about schools. Many schools offer impressive virtual tours. When researching schools on College Confidential, look for the virtual tour link on the top of each school's profile for a quick way to get a sense of the campus environment and facilities. Many schools also offer other creative virtual offerings, like online admissions Q&A's, opportunities to chat with current students, and info sessions for each department or even major.
“People put more research into buying a car, which is about a $30,000 to $60,000 investment, than they do into evaluating a four-year educational experience, which can cost between $80,000 and $280,000," Siegel said. “Be informed, do as much research as possible and visit the school if you can."
Every year, students on the College Confidential forums apply to a slew of top schools, only to be heartbroken and confused when they don't get into most or any of the schools on their list. Remember, Harvard could fill their incoming class two times over with just high school valedictorians, so no matter how strong your stats are, you need some solid back-ups.
“I typically tell students that they should have at least three schools they feel very confident about getting into, and anything else beyond that is up to the student," she says. When it comes to adding reach schools to the list, Siegel advises parents that if a school really feels like the right fit, those students should be supported in applying, as long as they have a few match schools on their list as well. “What's essential is that they put as much work into their match school applications as they do with their reach schools," she advises.
Instead of choosing a range of top colleges and one safety, picture your list like the graph of normal curve. So, if you're applying to ten colleges, you'd have two reach schools that will be a stretch to get into, three match schools that seem like admissions is possible but not likely, three schools that are likely to accept you, and two that schools that you're a shoo-in for.
Traditionally, students were advised to apply to 8-10 colleges. Students who create longer lists may run into what Siegel calls “application fatigue." However, as admissions gets increasingly competitive, college gets more expensive, and the process becomes more streamlined through resources like the Common App, students are applying to more and more schools. It's not uncommon for students today to apply to between 15 and 20 colleges. As long as you have time to put into each application and all the schools on your list are ones you'd be happy to go to if you got in, it's less important how many schools you apply to making sure you have a solid mix of reach, match, and safety, and schools that have what you want in a college.
You might not want to apply to the exact same schools friends and family members applied to, but do ask them for help and advice! Choosing where to apply to college requires a lot of self-reflection and research, so don't try to do it all alone. Reach out to your guidance counselor, an admissions professional, or friends and family who have been there before.
Friends and family can draw from their own experience and they knowledge of you to help you make a better decision about where to apply. Ask them what they liked best about their college, what other schools they applied to, what kind of schools they can see you thriving in and why, what they would do differently if they could go to college again. If you're active on social media, ask people in your network to share where they went to college, if they'd recommend it, and why. You may hear about some great schools you hadn't even considered, and you can then see if they have what you're looking for.
Your guidance counselor or a private admissions counselor may be able to suggest schools you've never even considered. “Talk to someone who can review your stats, your interests and your goals who can give you feedback on whether your list is sound," Siegel said. The clearer you are on what you want, the more helpful they can be in helping you generate off-the-beaten-path colleges that might have just what you're looking for.
You can also reach out for tips and advice on the College Confidential forums, where millions of community members are eager to share their advice and experiences for free.
Some quotes and inspiration for this article came from an article by Torrey Kim that originally appeared in April 2018.
Just search for schools under the college tab, and click the heart icon to save the schools you're considering. View all the schools on your list by clicking the heart icon on the top of the screen.
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