How do I know where I want to go to college? A values-based roadmap for shortlisting for “reach” and highly-selective colleges.

It’s senior year, and it’s time to make your college list. Where do you start? With thousands of colleges across the United States, the process for shortlisting can be overwhelming.

As a college counselor and selective college admissions expert, I suggest you narrow your list of colleges to 8. Yes, only 8 schools. (Two “reach” schools; 4 “target” schools; and 2 “safety” schools).

For your reach and highly-selective schools, you can use my method to narrow down your list:

Step 1: Be realistic. You first have to ask yourself: Where will I be a competitive applicant? Let me share a not-too-confidential secret about gaining admission to highly-selective colleges: More so than any other population of students, you will be competing for admission with classmates applying from your same high school.

This means that Naviance data is your new best friend — you will learn from these data how high your GPA and test scores were for students who were admitted (or rejected) from certain colleges. Go ahead and check the data.

Based on these data, you can most likely rule out certain colleges based on grades and test scores alone.

It will be painful, but go ahead and cross some schools off your list (goodbye for now, Harvard. See you in grad school.)…

That was easy, right? (Okay, maybe not so much, but I’m here to help you through it.) Now let’s get down to the more important criteria for evaluating your reach school and values-based shortlisting.

Step 2. Own your values. In order to determine find the right schools that match you, you first need to evaluate your own values. All of these ways can be used to know yourself and your values better:

· Take strengths self-assessments, such as the VIA Survey of Strengths (Free, but requires login). Self-assessments allow you to identify your strengths, skill gaps, and revisit your college goals.

· Interview teachers and friends about your impact in and outside of class. This information will help you understand your best qualities and what you bring to a group. According to branding guru Dorie Clark, we can use personal interviews to better understand our strengths, weaknesses and goals.

· Write in a journal about your goals and your reasons for wanting to achieve these goals. Journal writing is a proven technique for enhancing reflection and self-understanding.

Step 3: Know colleges’ and universities’ values and match them to yours. Each of the documents listed below, which are available on the college’s website, can help you understand university values and priorities (and you can bet that the colleges are looking to admit students that help them meet these priorities!).

1. The college’s mission statement and school motto. This document provides information about the school’s character, culture, and history. Does the school motto or mission resonate with you? Wonderful! That’s the number one indicator of a match. If the school motto or mission does not resonate with you, then move on to the next college on your list.

a. If the college’s motto or mission statement resonates with you, then move forward and try to talk with an alumnus or current student at this college. You might find someone from the college directly through your contacts in high school, or you can make a connection with someone on the college’s alumni page or through LinkedIn.

2. To learn more about the school’s priorities, scope out other publicly available documents, including:

· The strategic plan published by the President or Dean. This document shows how the school will invest money and resources in the coming years (and thus the college will be looking for students to use these resources).

· The curricular or academic plan. Check school/program/university pages separately, based on academic interests.

· Recent donations. This indicates where school priorities are today or where they may go tomorrow. Check press release pages on individual college/university websites or check Chronicle of Philanthropy.

When there is a match between your values and the university’s values, you can be confident that you will be a competitive applicant.

Remember that you can’t make magically fit yourself to a college. But you can make strategic and wise decisions about where to apply (and how to position yourself as an applicant) when you consider both the colleges’ values and your own.

Ready to start making your list? Contact me for help. (aviva at

I’m Aviva Legatt. I am a consultant in selective college admissions, and a faculty member at University of Pennsylvania in Organizational Dynamics. I lecture globally about how to use your values to select the right educational match. My expertise has been sought by students and families from around the world, and by organizations like The New York Times and Business Insider.

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