5 Criteria To Consider When Building A College List

The first step in the college application process is deciding which schools to apply to. There are hundreds of schools that might fit the bill—and even more factors to consider when creating the list—so we urge parents and students alike to keep an open mind and not to be swayed by name recognition alone.

A college may be perfect for one student and completely wrong for another. That's where college match comes in. College match refers to how well a school fits with a student. We're talking about things like academic and social fit, a geographic location that suits the student, and a financial aid package that works for the family. Students should determine what's important to them and then start to develop their college list based on those criteria.

Of course, students aren't the only ones looking for a good match. While academic match continues to be a core criteria for colleges, 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 things like grades and test scores. When it comes down to it, colleges want to ensure that their entering first-year class consists of well-rounded students whose personalities, skills, and talents match the values of their institution.

Here are five important factors to consider when building a college list.

5 Criteria To Consider When Building A College List

1. Major & Academic Interest

One of the most exciting parts of college is deciding what you want to study or what your major will be. If you already know what you want to study, make sure the colleges on your list offer that major, and also be sure to research those specific programs at each school. If you're still relatively undecided—and that’s okay!—take some time to be sure the colleges on your list have a wide enough variety of offerings that you're not pigeonholed into a major you don't love.

2. Location

Where in the country—or world—do you want to be? Do you want to live close to home or far away? Do you want to be in the hustle and bustle of an urban setting, or do you prefer a more rural area? Just remember to distinguish between what you're used to and what you want for the next four years. While it's absolutely okay to stay within your comfort zone if you love the environment you grew up in, don't let that be the default—it should be an active decision.

3. Size

Do you want to be a large fish in a small pond? Or do you love big communities where you never stop meeting new people? There are advantages to both a large and a small campus, and what might be an advantage for some could be a disadvantage for others. For example, at a small college, you may know nearly all of the students in your graduating class. For some students, that's a great thing: a sense of community. For others, it might overwhelming. You need to think about what works best for you.

4. Off-Campus Community

The college experience doesn’t end at the edge of campus, and it's important to think about the surrounding community. For example, if you’re an aspiring artist or music producer, it makes sense to consider colleges in areas that are rich with the arts. If you’re interested in politics, perhaps expand your options in Washington, D.C. Not only will location affect your broader college experience, but it will also affect your opportunities to find internships or part-time jobs that are aligned with your academic major.

5. Cost & Affordability

Given the already 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, whereas the net price is the final cost after scholarships, grants, and other financial aid sources have been deducted. As you make your college list, consider the historical data for financial aid to each school, and be sure you're only including schools that might offer what you need. Once you've been accepted, compare all financial aid packages to be sure you’re making an informed decision that fits with your family’s finances.

There are infinite factors to consider when building your college list, but these five criteria should at least help you begin the process of elimination. Take the time to identify other criteria that are important to you, and you'll be sure to end with a list of schools where you can thrive.