The College List is an indispensable tool for success in college admissions. This is the set of target colleges that are exceptionally well suited to you as an individual and to which you’ll apply in senior year.

A key consideration in developing your College List is the number of schools that should be on the final version. While there is no “right” number, we advise that the majority of students should apply to nine colleges. Less than nine doesn’t spread your risk sufficiently and more than nine risks dissipating your effort. If application fees are an issue, many colleges allow you to apply without paying a fee.

Set the Requirements for Your List

The first step in building your College List is to establish the criteria against which you’ll compare colleges. You choose and prioritize your own criteria to suit yourself. They may include such factors as the size of the student body, faculty-to-student ratio, affordability, core curriculum, academic reputation, majors, degrees granted, geographic location, local community, campus setting, campus amenities, social life, work-study programs, ROTC options, college abroad opportunities, and mentorship programs.

Most students weigh affordability and academic reputation most heavily.

Next, assess how well colleges match your criteria. Start with a list of all of the colleges that interest you. Assuming this is a long list, you’ll need to reduce it to a more manageable size through research. With a list of about 15 schools, you can discuss their pros and cons with guidance counselors, admissions consultants, family, friends, and students and alumni of the colleges.

Among the resources available for your research are college websites and course catalogs, shared databases like the Common Data Set (CDS), magazine rankings and the databases that support them, college guidebooks such as the Fiske Guide and Peterson’s, governmental resources like the College Scoreboard, high school guidance resources like Naviance Scatter Diagrams, and certified independent educational consultants like Klaar College Consulting.

The best way to assess the colleges still on the list is to visit them. Take campus tours, set up college visitsadmissions interviews, and meet with students and faculty in your major. Staying overnight in a dorm and interacting informally with students will yield more useful information than any other research. The positive or negative vibes you get may be strong enough for you to reexamine your entire list.

Create Three Tiers of Target Schools

 A common approach to developing a College List is to divide it into these three tiers: 1.) Colleges to which you will almost certainly be admitted, 2.) Colleges to which you will probably be admitted, and 3.) Colleges that you aspire to attend but where you have a slim chance of admission.

At Klaar College Consulting, we refer to the three tiers as Likely, Target, and Reach. They’re distinguished by their academic requirements for admission. You’ll measure your GPA, test scores, and other variables such as class rank against the comparative data for colleges; the academic records of applicants who were accepted last year.

This data is available from a range of sources, but most readily from the Common Data Set, CDS, for each college. The CDS provides substantial detail and breaks down all admissions-related data elements such as freshmen GPA and test scores into percentiles so you can see where your record would place you among previously successful applicants.

Here’s an overview of the tiers:

Likely

A Likely school is one where your academic record falls comfortably above the average GPA and test scores of the last class admitted. You should feel confident that you’ll be admitted to your three Likely schools. You should select Likely schools that you’d be happy to attend if your Target and Reach schools don’t admit you, or you decide not to attend any that do.

Target

 A Target school is one where your academic record falls at about the average level of last year’s freshmen. It’s reasonable to anticipate admission to your three Target schools. However, there’s an immeasurable risk inherent in the variability of the volume and quality of applications from year to year.

Reach

Your three Reach schools are ones that you aspire to attend and where you have at least a students thinking about collegepossibility of admission. Your academic record places you at the lower end of the average of last year’s successful applicants, but not so low as to eliminate you from consideration.

As is true in all three tiers, but especially with Reach schools, your chances of acceptance are much improved if you possess a strong non-academic hook, that is, a highly developed talent or skill that enables you to satisfy an existing need that has been identified by a college. In addition, the degree to which you demonstrate interest in attending the college is also important. Essays, extracurricular activities, and interviews are three additional non-academic ways to distinguish yourself.

Early Application Programs:  Early Decision, Early Action, Restricted Early Action and Single-Choice Early Action

The process of identifying the colleges that best fit you, and narrowing them down to three in each tier, is difficult and time-consuming. Adding to the complexity is the need to consider Early Admission programs.

Early Application programs vary widely in their terms and options. Your chance of acceptance by certain colleges is improved significantly if you participate in their Early program. If you choose to apply early to colleges, you’ll know if you were accepted before the deadline for submitting applications for the Regular Decision cycle. Obviously, you won’t need to submit any more applications if you choose to accept a binding Early Decision offer. In case your dream doesn’t come true, you should have all the other applications ready to submit when the bad news comes.

Summary

The arduous College List process is well worth the effort if it helps you to achieve the desired outcome — acceptance at one or more of your best-fit colleges. Klaar College Consulting has years of experience in assisting students in building effective College Lists. We stay well informed by following college news, attending professional association events, and interacting with fellow experts. We also attend college fairs, visit campuses, and speak with college administrators. Klaar College Consulting is your top choice for guidance in building a College List that suits your personal set of qualifications, needs, and preferences.