Chapter Seven

Building a College List

In the previous chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, we talked about all of the discretionary things that your student can do to make their application even stronger. In addition to grades and test scores, the SAT Subject Tests, college interviews, extracurricular activities, and the mid-year update are all taken into consideration by admissions officers when reviewing your student's application.

In this chapter, we'll walk through our three step process to help you and your student decide on which colleges to apply for. During this process, we'll give examples of what factors to consider, where to find important information and how best to build your college list to make the most of your time and money.

Step 1: Decide What Type of College Fits Your Academic Interests

The nature of higher education is surprisingly diverse and includes more than just more “traditional” public, private and community colleges. Before nailing down which specific colleges your student wants to apply for, they need to first identify what their interests are and what type of college fits those interests.

Public/Private Universities

The broadest classification of higher education is the four-year public or private university. These are larger institutions that offer a varying range of majors for undergraduates, ranging across the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields. Students take a range of courses, not necessarily just within their major, to receive a well-rounded education. Universities also offer more than just undergraduate programs, including graduate or professional programs awarding higher degrees.

Many universities also have a focus on research, meaning that faculty will split their time between teaching and pursuing research. Because these universities are also comparatively larger, that may result in an increased reliance on teaching assistance and larger class sizes.

While their structure is largely similar, public and private universities differ most noticeably when it comes to tuition.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Most universities have colleges within the institution that are focused on undergraduate education. Examples of this are the Yale College within Yale University or the College of Arts and Sciences within Cornell University. However, there are some Liberal Arts Colleges that stand alone.

Liberal Arts Colleges tend to offer majors that are one expansive area of study, whereas universities may break up these larger majors into two or three different tracks. Classes at Liberal Arts Colleges also tend to be smaller in size with lower student-teacher ratios since these colleges are usually smaller than universities.

Tuition at Liberal Arts Colleges is higher since they are mostly private. However, they also tend to have large endowments so can provide more need-based financial aid.

Other Types of Colleges

While the two most common types are larger universities and smaller liberal arts colleges, there are some other types of colleges your student might be considering.

Step 2: Build Your College List

Now that your student has decided what type of college they're interested, it's time to start building and narrowing down their college list. There are three categories that are used to refer to colleges relative to your student's admissions criteria:

We recommend that your student applies to three safety, three match and three reach schools to minimize the risk associated with the college admissions process. To determine which schools fall into which category for your student, there are certain statistics that you should pay particular attention to.

But before we dive into the criteria your student should be looking at to build their list, we want to address this idea of systemically inflected self-selection. This is when students in the lower half of the socioeconomic status distribution substantially undermatch, meaning that they attend a college at least two selectivity levels below the level that they actually qualify for.

On the flip side, there is little evidence that students perform worse at institutions with higher average SAT scores than their own. So rather than only applying to safety schools, we recommend taking a chance and applying to some reach schools as well. You never know what might happen!

Now let's dive into the qualifications and metrics to consider when building your college list. These criteria can fall into two main categories: academic and financial.

To help you on your search, we've put together this downloadable college list builder worksheet. On it, you can keep track of important criteria and develop a ranking for colleges to apply to.

College List Builder Worksheet [Free Download]
Download your College List Builder Worksheet to match target schools with key admissions criteria. Use your college list to set the foundation of your college search.



Academic Criteria

The most important personal academic criteria your student needs to keep in mind are their GPA, Test Scores (ACT/SAT), course rigor, and extracurricular activities. The *institutional* academic criteria to consider when deciding whether a school is a “safety,” “match,” or “reach” include a school's acceptance rate, retention rate, graduation rate, and student to faculty ratio.

Below are typical examples of admissions criteria among top-tier, mid-tier, and lower-tier schools. These can give you a general sense of the types of schools your student should include in their search based on their admissions criteria.

Very Selective Colleges

University Name Admittance Rate GPA SAT Range ACT Range Graduation Rate
University of Chicago 8% 84% of admitted students have GPA over 3.75 1490-1600 32-35 92%
Yale University 7% 97% in top tenth of class 1480-1600 31-35 97%
Grinnell College 25% 81% in top tenth of class 1330-1540 30-33 86%
University of California, Berkeley 15% 98% in top tenth of class 1330-1540 29-34 91%

Selective Colleges

Univesity Name Admittance Rate GPA SAT Range ACT Range Graduation Rate
Clark University 55% 48% of admitted students have GPA over 3.75 1200-1410 26-30 83%
SUNY Binghamton 42% 64% of admitted students have GPA over 3.75 1300-1440 27-31 81%
Whitman College 43% 54% in top tenth of class 1280-1470 27-32 87%

Less Selective Colleges

Univesity Name Admittance Rate GPA SAT Range ACT Range Graduation Rate
Ursinus College 83% 25% in top tenth of class 1120-1320 23-30 78%
Wagner College 69% 40% of admitted students have GPA over 3.75 1110-1310 22-27 64%
Humboldt State University 75% 13% in top tenth of class 960-1180 18-24 46%

Financial Criteria

In an ideal scenario, every student would have the opportunity to attend the college that is the perfect fit for them. The unfortunate reality is, though, that the steep cost of college is often a limiting factor in what schools a student can attend.

But before you write off a school as way too expensive, it's important to know that the situation is less dire than it seems.

In fact, there are many financial aid opportunities available to low-income students that many students are unaware of. Only about one-third of full-time college students pay full tuition. It may even be possible that low-income students would pay less at a selective institution where they qualify for more financial aid than at a less selective college with a smaller endowment. Make sure to be aware of how much you would actually need to pay before you decide a college is too expensive to apply for.

Many top colleges recognize that there is a severe education gap correlated with socioeconomic status and are making an effort to attract and graduate students on the lower end of that scale. Below is a table showing how top colleges rank on a College Access Index scale.

College Access Index


To help your student in their search for information, we've put together a list of useful resources:

Important to note: Rankings such as US News and World Report are not the most useful metrics to make your decision, for they utilize data such as alumni donation rates, which may not always be particularly useful.

Step 3: Visit Colleges

Once your student has decided on which colleges to apply for, it's time for them to actually get a feel for what it's like to be on campus. As we discussed in the first chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, visiting colleges is a great way to demonstrate your interest in the school, which will only bolster your application. We recommend taking a look at College Board's Big Future, which has a great College Visit finder feature.

Of course, we also know that college visits can get expensive. There are many colleges that will fly out students from underrepresented populations to visit campuses. Keep an eye out for opportunities in your area.

Another alternative is to visit similar “type” colleges in your local area (large university, liberal arts, etc.) to find a good cross-section of experiences. Many colleges will also hold alumni interviews in your local area, so even if your student can't visit the school before they apply, they can show their interest and connect with others to learn about what it's like to be a student at their school of interest.

Build a List That's Perfect for You

Deciding where to apply to college seems like a daunting task if you don't know where to start. By following these steps, you can help your student narrow down their potential list of colleges and find the school that is perfect for them.

In the next chapter, we'll talk about the most important step when applying to college: how to actually apply. We'll break down the different applications your student will need to complete and the multiple rounds of applications they may experience as they continue through the college admissions process.

Chapter Eight

The Ultimate College Prep Guide

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