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How to Build a College List

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: April 22, 2021

Table of Contents

As you begin to build your college list, it can be daunting to know which options to choose. Especially since we’re living through a pandemic and many schools are still shut down and not conducting campus visits or information sessions. There are over 5,000 colleges in the United States to choose from. So you have a lot of places you could apply to. 

The first step is to know what you and your family are looking for in your ideal college community. In this post, I present a checklist of key questions to ask as you research colleges

Academic Questions

When it comes to comes to the quality of education, does the college…

  • Offer the top three majors I could potentially study?
  • Have the types of classes I’d like to take, are interesting to me, and will prepare me for a career?
  • Allows flexibility if I change my mind about my major? What are the steps to changing majors?
  • Offer my desired student-to-teacher ratio?
  • Provide suitable academic accommodations so that I can feel confident and challenged?
  • Have a schedule and grading system that fits the pace at which I learn?
  • Promote opportunities for study abroad or international study if this is an experience that is interesting to me?
  • Encourage professors to work with undergraduate students on independent study projects?

Environment Questions

When it comes to comes to the physical and social environment, is the College…

  • A comfortable distance (for me) from home?
  • Providing a range of activities that I am interested in joining and align with how I like to have fun?
  • In a climate where I’d be happy?
  • Promoting values and systems that I agree with?
  • Attracting the type of students I’d like to be around?
  • Clear about its COVID-19 policies?
  • Giving new students a range of on-campus living options that I’m excited about?
  • Keeping students safe (mainly if located in a high-crime area)?
boy posing with a doubt face

Financial Questions

When it comes to the money, is the College…

  • Affordable for my family?
  • Offer a tremendous overall return on investment?
  • Have positive economic outcomes for students who’ve graduated?
  • Transparent about total costs, award offers, and opportunities for endowed scholarships?

Vocational Questions

When it comes to comes to preparing for a career, does the College…

  • Offer internships, fellowships, or coop programs to earn money and gain work experience?
  • Have a well-resourced career services department with connections to employers in my desired major?
  • Maintain and engage with an alumni network who value giving back to undergraduate students?

It’s best to clarify the questions listed above (and others, not all listed) that give you insight into where you’d like to go to College. Many of the answers to these questions can be researched using my favorite tool, College Navigator.

Once you find schools, I’d like you to narrow down even more with these considerations to avoid more significant challenges down the road as it relates to the Big Three: (1) getting admitted, (2) paying for College, and (3) graduating and getting a job.

So beyond “what colleges do I like and add to my list?” — I want you to think long-term and build a balanced list of schools where you have higher chances of admissions, a great financial aid package, and staying the entire four years.

Once you get clear on these foundational questions, I’d like you to go a bit deeper so that you begin to understand better where you’d like to attend.

boy student reading a book

What are the chances I'll get admitted?

In the past 2020-2021 admissions cycle, to say there were a ton of surprises would be an understatement. Many students were waitlisted and denied from schools that years prior they would’ve with confidence be able to count being admitted. But this year, applications were skewed to the top 100 colleges, with schools seeing triple-digit increases from the previous admissions cycle. 

So what we learned as a whole is the importance of looking beyond the top 100 most selective schools. There are so many great colleges for you to choose from. A college’s ranking does not equate to quality. What is important is that the school you’re looking for is looking for you too. Where do you find this information? Start with the school’s website: the about us page, vision and mission statement, news and events, and the alumni relations department for clues.

Will I get enough scholarships and financial aid?

While financials may not be everything, this year also dealt many surprises. Schools that historically provided merit scholarships did not, or they didn’t offer scholarships at the level seen previously. As applications increased, so did the number of scholarships to meet the range of financial need. 

How do you know who gives money? First, you should use a college’s Net Price Calculator and input your family’s current tax year information. But the NPC isn’t always accurate. And schools are decreasing the percentage of need they can meet every year. 

If you’re a numbers nerd, you can also use the Common Data Set, a resource published by the Common Data Set Initiative, to give quality and accurate information about the college process. Common Data Set is published using College Board, Peterson’s, and U.S. News & World Report numbers.

Moreover, I recommend looking into the financial aid office and requesting a copy of their financial aid and scholarship policies. Also, you can research the school’s philanthropic department for insight into the types of students they are looking to attract. A rarely used hack is to apply to schools looking to “buy” students with your profile. For example, the University of Chicago created the Odyssey Scholarship to attract more first-generation students. A student who gets admitted and receives this scholarship can go nearly free, with its no-loans policy. If you fit into that category and are a strong candidate for the school, you have higher admissions chances and can look forward to a great financial aid package.

Girl student in front of her college

Will I graduate and get a job afterward?

I’m sure that you already know that College is expensive. The average middle-class family will spend between $100,000 and $300,000 on college costs per child. If you anticipate your parents spending money like this, then you must be sure that you’re going to get a return on the investment. 

First, you want to know if the school has high retention and graduation rates. If not, you should ask why. Look into the academic, social, and mental support on campus to help students do well. Do they offer academic tutoring? If you get overwhelmed, is there someone on campus to talk to? How does the college help students deal with homesickness, physical illnesses, or when “life happens? These are important questions to ask because it is expensive to transfer. If you transfer, you stand to lose financial aid, credits, and most precious of all — time. 

As it relates to getting a job after graduation, you should look into a college’s data on:

  • The number of graduates who get a job the first year after leaving school.
  • Graduate earnings 1-year, 5-years, and 10-years later?
  • The strength of the alumni network in connecting peers with internships, jobs, and entrepreneurial partnerships.
You can find this information in lists published by Forbes, or PayScale.com, which is my favorite. For details on how the school handles alumni relations, you can see this on their website and LinkedIn pages. From my own experience, 15 years after graduating from the University of Chicago, I am still connected with both peers who I attended the College with and alumni who graduated before or after me across many of the school’s divisions. The school does a great job facilitating those connections through email, an online directory, social media posts, and events. Many of the opportunities I have had in my career or business have been through other U of Chicago graduates.

Conclusions + Next Steps

This post gave you more insight into what to think about and do to build a balanced college list that meets your objectives and the key metrics that matter most in the long run. As a next step, I’d like you to download this College Exploration Worksheet to begin researching colleges.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.