Fine Tuning the College List

After months and months of research, visiting schools, and interviewing, many seniors are faced with a new dilemma: how to cull what has become an impressively long college list into something more manageable and realistic. With more than 3,000 colleges from which to choose, the challenge is to develop a list of schools that both matches the student’s abilities, interests, and character and that also represents an appropriate range of selectivity. Generally, a college list of 8 - 10 schools is appropriate for most students. Even though the Common Application facilitates the application process, interviewing, campus visits, and completing supplemental materials can take a tremendous amount of time. Working on too many applications can compromise both the caliber of each individual application as well as detract from time and effort better focused on school work and extracurricular activities.

To hone the list, consider carefully why each school was put on the list in the first place. Likely, through the college process, search criteria became increasingly refined and those schools chosen early in the process may no longer be appropriate. Review the list carefully, and keep only those colleges that remain the best matches.

The next step in refining the college list is to check it for balance, making sure that there are “Reach”, “Eye-Level”, and “Likely” schools represented. Typically, the most selective, or Reach schools, are the easiest to add and lists quickly become “top heavy.” Because these schools typically have lengthy supplements, applying to many of them can actually backfire as it’s hard to put forth one’s best effort on each and every application. A better strategy is to submit thoughtful and well-polished applications to the top 2 – 3 Reach schools.

At the other end of the spectrum, “Likely” schools play a critical role and should not be just “thrown on” as afterthoughts. Like every other school on the final list, these schools should be places where the applicant would thrive academically and socially. If a Likely school is not a college the applicant would attend, then it shouldn’t be on the list at all. These 2 – 3 schools are the most difficult to find because they involve a compromise of some kind and they don’t have the same cache as the more selective schools.

The middle tier of schools that appear on a balanced college list are the “Eye-Level” or “Moderate” Schools – those institutions where the applicant stands an even chance of being admitted. These 3 or 4 schools are the backbone of the college list and should be chosen with tremendous thought and care. Chances are, it is one of the schools in this category that the student will end up attending.

Developing a balanced list of appropriate schools takes time but should reflect a range of schools at which the applicant will be a happy, successful student. While there can be compelling reasons to have lists that are longer or shorter than the recommended 8 - 10 schools, the most important thing is that the list is balanced between Reach, Moderate, and Likely schools and that the applicant puts his best effort into his applications at each and every school.