Creating a Well-Rounded College List

The first—and possibly most important—step in the application process is deciding which schools to apply to. There are thousands of factors to consider when choosing which colleges to put on a final college application list, and hundreds of schools that might fit the bill, so we urge parents and students alike to keep an open mind and not to be swayed by name recognition alone! 

What Defines A College Match

College match refers to the how a school matches a student's academic, social, geographic and financial criteria. Rather than starting with a wishlist, it is most effective when students consider their individual personalities, skills and talents as they develop that criteria. While a student's test scores and grade point averages may be identical to their friend, their criteria likely differs a great deal.

Students are not the only ones looking for a good match. While the academic match continues to be a core criteria for the college, admissions committees are increasingly taking a holistic approach.  This means admissions officers place emphasis on the applicant as a whole person, not just his or her academic achievements, so soft factors may be given just as much consideration as the empirical data present in hard factors. Colleges want to ensure that their entering first-year class consists of well-rounded students whose personalities, skills and talents match the culture of their institution.

5 Criteria to Consider In Building Your List

  1. Major & Academic Interest: One of the best parts of college is deciding what you want to study or what your major will be. Some students know from a very young age what they want to study, while others are still relatively undecided, and that’s okay too. If you do already know what you want to study, make sure the colleges on your list offer that major, and research that specific program at the schools you’ll apply to.
  2. Location: Where in the country (or world) do you want to be? Do you want to live close to home or far away? This is an important criterion to consider as you create your list. For example, if college is far away (i.e. a plane ride), how often can you afford to come home? You should also think about what kind of environment you prefer. Do you want to be in the hustle and bustle of an urban setting, or do you prefer a rural area?
  3. Size: Do you want to be a large fish in a small pond? There are advantages to both a large and a small campus. At a small college you may know nearly all of the students in your graduating class or rest assured that your professors will know you well.
  4. Off-Campus Community: Given the varying personalities of students, it can also be important to consider off-campus life. The college experience doesn’t end at the edge of campus. For example, if you’re an aspiring artist or music producer, it makes sense to enroll at an institution located in areas that are rich with the arts. If you’re interested in politics, perhaps a school in Washington, D.C. would be a good option. Location creates greater opportunities for students to find internships or part-time employment that are aligned with their academic major or simply provides a more well-rounded college experience.
  5. Cost & Affordability: Given the high cost of a college education, families should consider the differences between the sticker price and the actual net price of any school. The sticker price is the advertised cost of attendance, where the net price is the final cost after scholarships, grants, and other financial aid sources have been deducted. Compare all financial aid packages to make sure you’re making an informed decision that fits in with your family’s finances.

These are not the only criteria to consider, of course, but this guide offers a starting point to help you begin the process of elimination as you build your college list. Take the time to identify other criteria that are important to you to help you find schools where you can thive.