For many high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors, creating a college list can feel intimidating. It feels as if a whole life depends on making the “right” decision, and for some students, that can create overwhelming pressure. The key to making a good college list is to find an authentic balance: of likelihood, cost, earnings, educational program, culture, and other factors.
The struggle for many students is to create a list that balances different goals: finding a school you can afford, a school that matches your cultural and educational goals, a school whose education will allow you to earn a good living, and a school you can get into.
One key to building a balanced list is to start early. If you start putting together a long list of colleges in your sophomore year, you will have plenty of time to take virtual tours and at least for some of your choices, to go visit in person. That way you can develop a sense of what would fit you. College shopping is a little like buying a house, and sometimes you don’t know what you like until you see it.
Focus on Cost, Likelihood, and Earnings
As you create your college list, focus first on the important criteria: cost, likelihood, and earnings. This might seem counterintuitive, but if you think first about these foundational criteria, you’ll avoid a lot of disappointment and difficulty in building your college list. Specifically:
- Likelihood: A good college list maximizes both your opportunities and your likelihood of admission. Build a list where your chances of being admitted to none of your choices are less than 1%, and at the same time, where you apply to some selective schools that are “reaches” for you.
- Cost: College is extremely expensive, and unless you think about cost as a primary factor, you could find yourself being accepted at many colleges you cannot afford to attend. So have honest conversations about money, and start with the question: how big a check can we afford to write each year without significantly affecting our standard of living?
- Earnings: College isn’t all about getting a job. A great liberal-arts education can help broaden your horizons and teach skills, like critical thinking and communications, that are critical no matter what career you pursue. But getting a good job is important. The Department of Education has data on the prospective earnings of the graduates of different colleges. Factoring these earnings into your search can help.
Widen Your Search
It also makes sense to widen your search. Too many students start the search by only considering schools in their area, state universities in their state, or colleges they hear about from family and friends. There are thousands of universities in the United States (and many more abroad), so you’re well served by casting a wide net and looking at all the universities that meet your criteria.
Once you have a long list of universities, use tools like virtual tours and, if possible, visit schools in person to understand which might be the best fit for you. Consider what programs they offer and how those can help you achieve your goals.
And ask how the culture at the university fits your needs. Some colleges have famously competitive programs. Others stress collaboration. Some have very detailed curricula. Others allow students to build their own programs. If you start early, you’ll have time to speak with admissions officials and understand what makes the college distinctive.
Building an authentically balanced list of colleges involves focusing on fit rather than rank and creating a list that values likelihood, cost, earnings, as well as culture.