Preparing Your College List

By Patricia Gorden Neill - February 26th, 2013

You’ve decided that you want to go to college. That’s a big decision that will incorporate many others along the way. You are now at the point where you need to decide which colleges you’d like to attend. Many elements go into preparing your college list, that is, a list of seven or eight colleges that you’ve researched and decided to apply to. Most higher education counselors suggest that on your list you’ll want two or three reach colleges, colleges that you think will be a challenge for you to get into, two target colleges, which you think are a good match, and two or three safety colleges, where you know you won’t have a problem getting admitted.

At this point in the college search process, don’t limit yourself. Don’t shut out any colleges because they’re private and you consider them too expensive. Many private colleges have excellent financial aid programs and merit scholarships, thus lowering the ultimate price tag considerably. Look at schools out of state, in state, and close to home or a few hours away. Your parents may want you to attend their alma mater, but remember the ultimate choice is yours. The idea is to find colleges that would be a good fit for you. Some of the many components in finding colleges that you think will be a good match are as follows:

  • Size—colleges come in all sizes from huge to small and cozy.
  • Distance—how close or far away from home do you want to be?
  • Public or private
  • Two year or four year
  • Liberal arts and sciences or comprehensive university or career oriented college
  • Location—rural, suburban, urban
  • In state or out of state
  • Majors offered
  • Residential and social life
  • Athletics
  • Study abroad, internships and other academic programs
  • Career and personal services
  • Extracurricular activities, student clubs
  • Religious affiliation or same sex college

These are among the many elements you have to take into consideration when choosing colleges. You need to start out by asking yourself where you will feel comfortable. Some students are comfortable in large universities where they are nearly anonymous, others prefer small classes and getting to know professors personally. Some students function best attending lectures, others thrive on discussing the material. Some counselors advise challenging yourself by not going for comfortable, instead choosing colleges where it might not feel like a good fit at first. Many students don’t feel quite at home until they’ve made a few friends and figured out classes and how to get around campus. Adaptability comes into play at this point and you’ll end up loving the experience.

Of the elements listed, the college major is probably the most important. You’re going to school to learn, after all, and your academic focus in college will be the major you choose. If you haven’t thought about majors yet, give it some thought. You won’t have to pick a major right away. The first two years of college are general education courses for the most part, English, math, science and social sciences. You’ll find a major by absolutely loving the literature course or finding you excel in math or science.

Choosing your college major is another big decision, one that will affect the rest of your life. Many studies on personality and college majors have revealed that choosing a major that matches your personality will generate success in college and in life. It pays, in other words, to choose a major based on your personality type.

At some point, you should take a personality test to discover which type you are. This can help you in choosing your major, and later, your occupation and career.

Once you have a few colleges on your list, it’s time to start researching each college online. All colleges have Web sites that are chock full of information. You’ll find academic programs, faculty, pictures of campus and students, financial aid programs, cost and admission requirements. You can read up on student-professor ratio, class sizes, campus maps, academic resources, student services and dorm life. You can discover almost everything you need to know about the college except for one thing: what you’ll feel like when you show up on campus. You’ll find that out when you visit the school for the first time. Check out our section on campus visits, as it’s a good idea to prepare for them ahead of time.

In the meantime, you’ll be choosing various schools for your list. As you do so, talk to your parents, teachers and guidance counselors and ask for their opinions of the colleges you’re considering. The people who know you well can assist you greatly in making these early decisions.

In summary, don’t narrow your search too early. Keep an open mind about colleges you think might not accept you or that you think wouldn’t be a good fit. Research all the schools on your list, then gradually narrow it down until you have the reaches, the targets and the safeties. With this list in hand, you’re ready to begin the application process.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.