College lists can be extremely intimidating to create, and when we are unfamiliar with where to begin, we may feel paralyzed by plethora of possibilities: public, private, liberal arts, small, large, religious affiliation, location, research opportunities, and the list of factors go on!
Many students begin by focusing on schools, but in a seemingly counter-intuitive approach, it’s better to focus on yourself first. Look at your overall profile. What would a college deduce about you, your interests, your skills, your strengths, and your weaknesses? If your goal is to maximize your chances of getting into schools, identify how to present your strengths in the most attractive ways. Sometimes, this means a different major than you had in mind!
First, make sure to research as much as possible. After all, you are living there for four years! Research beyond academics. The ranking of the school isn’t going to affect your day-to-day life and happiness. Find a place that has an environment that suits your wants and needs. A happy student is a productive and successful student. Your individual needs are much more important, and they include personal goals, academic goals, and financial needs. Visit websites, social media, and the colleges themselves, whether virtually or in person. This also helps with showing demonstrated interest, a factor that is considered by many schools when making their admissions decisions.
Through in-person visits, you will be able to observe the school for what it really is. Think about advertising – products are presented in the best light. Colleges will show you the best parts about them. You have to go see the not-so-best parts for yourself. Walk off-campus. Do you feel safe? Do you feel inspired? Do you see yourself living off-campus there? Is college a pathway to a career for you? Will you have enough nearby opportunities in terms of internships or work experience?
Second, prioritize your own factors. Consider location, class size, school size, research opportunities, social life, opportunities for networking, etc. The popular US News Rankings may not fit your wants and needs. Make your own rankings!
Finally, balance your school list. Definitely aim high, but make sure to have variety. Include schools at which your academic performance is in the 75th+ percentile, in the middle 50th percentile, and below the 50th percentile. These will be your likely, target, and reach schools. All of this information is easily found on the schools’ websites. Also, consider which schools you would want to apply to early, and manage your workload accordingly (essays, letters of recommendation, transcripts).
Many students nowadays apply to 10-15 schools, which is made easier with the advent of the Common Application. After you have a college list, you will have a more detailed roadmap that guides you on your process; now you know which schools to research and what interests to write about, probably major-related! Ask others for different perspectives as well! Oftentimes, the stories in our lives feel insignificant because we’ve lived through the experiences and grown from them; however, for others, especially strangers and admissions officers, those stories could be very insightful!