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 the idea of a 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.

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College Spotlight: Georgetown University

Jack, Georgetown’s bulldog mascot, doesn’t like to sit on command on Fridays. At least that was what his student handler told me when he wouldn’t sit for a photo with a prospective freshman before the admissions information session during my visit to campus.

My two tour guides, Aneesh ‘19 and Charlotte ‘20, had several things in common. First, they had lived in the same freshman dorm. Second, they had both spent time at Georgetown’s famed villa outside of Florence, Italy, where students can spend anywhere from a semester to a few weeks in the summer. But their paths to Georgetown were very different. Charlotte’s parents both attended Georgetown and met while living in the same freshman dorm Charlotte had lived in. Aneesh, on the other hand, attended a large public school in Tallahassee, Florida and expected to attend a public university in Florida. His college counselor encouraged him to apply to Georgetown and he says that he was so glad he did. He had completed internships at the Department of Defense and the FBI. Next year he is heading to medical school.

As the oldest Catholic university in America, you might think that you’d feel out of place if you’re not Catholic. But my tour guides assured me that it’s quite the opposite. Actually, John Carrol founded Georgetown in 1789 because he wasn’t allowed to attend a U.S. college since he was Catholic so he had to be educated in Europe. He came back to America and started his own college, which is Catholic but “pluralistic.” In fact, Georgetown was the first Catholic university in the U.S. to hire Jewish and Hindu chaplains.

According to Aneesh, “Students here are intersectional. That makes them more accepting. We can engage and have discussions on anything.” He and Charlotte both said that they recommend to prospective freshman that if they come to Georgetown, they should attend different religious services each week to gain new perspectives.

Located right on the Potomac a few miles from the National Mall, Georgetown’s campus feels stately and traditional. Traditions abound on campus, including pranks. A tall clock tower on Healy Hall often falls prey to student “creativity”, such as the 2017 incident where two students stole the clock tower hands and replaced them with an inflatable unicorn head. Shops and restaurants on nearby M street are a major draw for students, locals and tourists. Georgetown Cupcake is a popular student destination.

Georgetown does things differently than many universities. Here are a few examples of how:

  • To match freshman roommates, the university uses a match.com-like app called Charms, where students connect with each other to find a roommate

  • Freshman have the opportunity to go on an overnight retreat in the Shenandoah Mountains in small groups

  • Students are required to live on campus for three years; some upper classman dorms have views overlooking the Potomac

  • Students run The Corp, which owns and operate charitable businesses on campus that give profits back to the school for scholarships, generating annual revenues over $5 million

  • Georgetown offers early assurance programs for medical and law school, meaning you can apply to medical school after your sophomore year without having to take the MCAT and you can apply to law school at the end of your junior year without having to take the LSAT

  • Students can minor in Turkish or Persian

As for applying to Georgetown, here’s important information you need to know:

  • Georgetown doesn’t offer merit aid - all financial grants are based solely on need

  • There is no ED option, only EA and RD; All EA applicants are either accepted or deferred

  • Alumni interviews are requried of all applicants

  • You must send ALL standardized tests you’ve taken (both ACT and SAT) - it is not a score choice college

  • Three SAT subject tests are required

  • Goergetown does not use the Common Application

College Spotlight: George Washington University

If you think you want to go to a medium-sized college in the middle of a city, you might want George Washington University (GWU) on your list. The Foggy Bottom Metro stop, which is right in the center of campus, is your quick link to anywhere in D.C.

But what you might not know is that there is also another, smaller campus - the Mt. Vernon Campus - which is a quick shuttle ride away from the main campus. It has a smaller, liberal arts feel with a lot of green space that appeals to many GWU students, some of whom choose to live in dorms there. Some smaller classes are held there and that’s also where the athletic fields are.

My tour guide, Tina, is a junior from China studying international affairs and social and cultural anthropology. She was upbeat about her experience at GWU. She said the hardest part of the adjustment was getting used to peculiarities in the language. For example, after moving into her dorm (by herself, since her parents didn’t travel with her) she went to a local restaurant and was mystified by why her beefsteak tomato burger had no beef in it. Turns out it was a vegetarian restaurant and beefsteak is a type of tomato.

Since there’s no cafeteria at GWU, students have a debit-like card for meals that they buy from 120 local restaurants and from the Whole Foods in the middle of campus. And yes, rest assured there’s a Chick-Fil-A in the campus food court. While some might find it strange that there’s not a centralized cafeteria, students have plenty of options to choose from and seem to delight in their choices and their ability to “eat out” for every meal.

What stood out most to me at GWU were the unique and innovative programs and facilities offered, including:

  • A new study abroad option in Antarctica spearheaded by a professor

  • A global BA degree where you spend three semesters abroad

  • Amazing research opportunities since it is a Tier 1 research institution. Professors invite first and second-year students to research with them, and students are encouraged to pursue their own research.

  • The ability to help staff the annual World Bank conference held at GWU

  • A Knowledge in Action fund that covers costs for students’ unpaid internships

  • Community Service opportunities at orientation and during spring break

  • Fixed tuition for five years

  • A 7-year BA/MD fast-track program

  • A 4-year honors program for students who are “intellectual audtitors” who love applying what they’re learning and finding intersectional points of their classes

  • Lisner Auditorium, the second biggest performing arts space in D.C. behind The Kennedy Center (lots of speakers come to campus and students enter a lottery to get tickets. Recent examples include a presidential debate between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders)

  • The impressive new science and engineering building

Tina mentioned that her freshman classes were large, and she struggled with a 200-person world history class in her first semester. When she went to her professor’s office hours, she broke down in tears. Her professor reassured her and remembered her name, often checking in with her when he saw her to ask how she was doing. “I guess crying is a good way to make your professors remember your name,” she said, laughing. Her classes now are more in the 20-40 range and she said GWU students typically take 5 classes per semester. She thought she was going to minor in art, and talked about a drawing class she took where the professor brought 🐶 his dog to class. It delighted everyone except for her because she’s scared of dogs. Ultimately she decided there weren’t enough art classes she was interested in so she switched her minor to anthropology. She raved about her mandatory university writing class called Feminist Filmmakers.

Other fun facts about GWU: most of the campus is in a no-fly zone because of its proximity to the White House and the chemical engineering department is located on the Mt. Vernon Campus for the same reason. A statue of a hippo named Martha resides outside Lisner Auditorium and students rub her nose and sacrifice burritos in her mouth for good luck on exams.

College Spotlight: American University

Even though most students at American University (AU) were away on spring break when I visited and no tours were offered, Zach, a friendly junior from Connecticut, graciously offered to escort me around campus after the information session before heading to his job at the campus swimming pool. Zach had known he wanted to be an FBI interrogator and/or profiler since he was in middle school and got hooked on TV crime shows. He raved about his recent law enforcement internship and about how much he loved his experience at American, especially the engaged and active student body.

Walking through the main green on campus, I definitely felt like on was on a traditional campus with a scholarly feel. The academic buildings surrounding the green practically oozed knowledge. It was a beautiful, warm day and if students were on campus, Zach said they would be out on the green enjoying themselves or getting work done outside.

Career Focus

I walked through many of the academic buildings, which were all open. I especially liked AU’s Kogod School of Business, which boasts its own Office of Career Engagement (separate from the main career center for all other students).  When I stopped in, one of the directors told me about the office’s many “treks” they take students on to explore career fields. For example, there was a finance trek to New York City where students visited financial firms and networked with people in the industry. There was also a Business in Entertainment trek to California, among others.

Kogod’s Office of Career Engagement utilizes students’ ideas to help them bring more students in to their office for career guidance. The woman I spoke with pointed to their “March Madness” events as an example. A student with graphic design skills had come up with a compelling flyer to advertise the March career events.

Another interesting fact about Kogod’s Office of Career Engagement is that they bring in therapy dogs for students to practice their presentations to help get rid of public speaking jitters.  Also, Kogod offers an entrepreneurship incubator that pairs students with experienced mentors, grants, networking, workspace, and educational opportunities and it is open to any student, not just business majors.

Location, Location, Location

One of the benefits of American is obviously its Washington, D.C. location. It’s not right downtown, however. Rather, it’s nestled in the beautiful residential area northwest of the city. A free shuttle transports students to the Tenleytown-AU Metro station (on the Red Line), which is otherwise a 21 minute walk. I decided to test it out to see how long the process took. I waited 16 minutes for the shuttle, which took about 10 minutes to get to the Metro station. Once there, the train came quickly and it was a short ride to Metro Center where you can transfer to other Metro lines. American students get an unlimited U-Pass for free rides on both the Metrobus and Metrorail, so internships in downtown D.C. are easy and affordable to access.

Commitment to Learning

American is known as being a learning-friendly university with its small, seminar-style classes and robust Academic Support and Access Center. You can switch majors easily and the core curriculum is flexible and cross disciplinary. It also has a test-optional application, which is helpful for students who don’t shine on standardized testing. Students who struggle with foreign languages will be happy to know that there is no foreign language requirement for students, unless it’s required for a major such as International Studies (AU’s most popular major) or Business Communication. And if you’re in a hurry to get out into the working world, there are three different three-year programs, including Public Health Scholars Program,the Politics, Policy and Law Scholars Program, and the Global Scholars Program.

Demonstrated Interest: Email with Admissions Representative

Demonstrated interest involves creating relationships with college representatives, faculty, alums, etc. Our post The Importance Of Demonstrated Interest gives a good sense of why this can be important for many students.

Your admissions rep will be your main point of contact during the admissions process. To find your rep, look at the admissions page on the website and find the name of the person who represents your state. Then, get ready to write your first email to him/her. Here are some ideas to help you get started:

A good first email to your admissions rep:

Hello Ms. Smith,

I have been researching the University of Rhode Island and really believe it is a great fit for me! The Oceanography program with the trip to the Arctic sounds amazing. I wanted to touch base with you because I still have a couple of questions. First, because I am coming from so far away, I was hoping you could connect me with a current student from my area—I’m interested to learn how a fellow southerner found the adjustment to New England. I also wanted to know if there is a professor I could talk with about research options in Oceanography.

Thank you so much for your help. Please let know if you’ll be visiting Austin; if so, I’d love to meet with you and possibly set up an interview. I look forward to being in touch with you throughout the upcoming semester/year!


A bad email to your admissions representative:

Hi, Bobby,

I am very interested in URI! Can you tell me whether your school has a pre-med program and what the acceptance rate is? Thank you.



Some important reminders:

  • Be polite: address reps appropriately, use mature language, write thank-you notes/emails

  • Be considerate of your rep’s time (no asking questions you should be able to answer with a little researching!)

  • Be curious: what is it you really need to know to make an informed decision about a school?

  • Proofread your emails for grammar and spelling issues

  • Make sure you are sending the right note to the right rep--with the right school name mentioned (be very careful if you are cutting and pasting notes from one rep/school to another)

You may also be interested in these posts:

Example Colleges Where Demonstrated Interest is Important or Very Important

The Importance Of Demonstrated Interest

11 Great Examples of Demonstrated Interest

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