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What is a College List and How Do I Build One?

Written by Camryn Brown, University of Miami, College Contact Counselor


There are almost 4000 colleges and universities in the United States alone. Deciding what colleges to apply to can be daunting. But have no fear! There is an organized approach that you can take to narrow down what colleges to apply to create a personalized college list! Think of a college list as your very own roadmap for your journey into higher education. Simply put, it is a special list of colleges and universities that are just perfect for you. This list is all about matching up what you want academically, what you like personally, and what you dream of doing in your future career to colleges that suit these needs. When it's time to apply, your list is like your magic tool, keeping you organized and focused on schools that really connect you with what you want. Don’t know where to start? Here are seven tips for curating the perfect college list for your college application process!



1. Start Early

Building your college list is not a last-minute task. Begin early, ideally during your junior year of high school. This gives you ample time to explore options, consider your preferences, and refine your choices. 


2. Understand Yourself and Your Preferences

Take a moment for some self-reflection about your qualities and characteristics as a student. What are your academic strengths and weaknesses? What subjects or activities make you excited? What are your current career aspirations? When you understand yourself and what you are looking for academically, you can then identify which colleges may suit your preferences. 


You must also think about your must-haves in a school when creating your college list. It is important to think about the factors that matter most to you. Do you have a specific major in mind? Are you drawn to a certain location or climate? Do you prefer a large, bustling campus or a smaller, more intimate setting? Consider both your must-haves and your deal-breakers to help narrow down your options.


4. Research, Research, Research

This is the fun part, but also the most important part. You must be diligent in researching the colleges and universities you believe you want to attend. Explore their websites, attend college fairs, and talk to current students if possible. In doing your research, the things that you may want to take note of are the academic programs the school offers, the size and location of the school, the campus culture, extracurricular activities and clubs, and any student-employment, internship, or work-study opportunities. To help you in your research, take advantage of free online resources and college search tools. Websites like College Board's BigFuture, Naviance, and niche.com can help you filter colleges based on your preferences and provide valuable insights from student reviews.


5. Visit Campuses

It is never too early to go on a college road trip! Whenever possible, visit the campuses of the colleges on your list. Campus visits provide a firsthand experience of the atmosphere, facilities, and community. It's a great way to determine if you can see yourself thriving in that environment.


6. Keep Your Options Open

While it's great to have some top choices, be open to exploring a range of schools. Your list should include a mix of your dream schools, safety schools, match schools, and reach schools on your list. This ensures you have options and a balanced approach to the college application process. Additionally, as you gather information and feedback throughout your college research process, your preferences, ideas, and desires may change. It is okay to periodically review and refine your college list as you learn more about each institution and as your priorities evolve.


7. Stay Organized:

One of the best ways to keep your college list organized is through a spreadsheet or written document. This document should contain all of the essential information about each college you have on your list. Some information you should include are:


  • Name of the school,

  • Location of the school

  • Type of school (private or public)

  • Application deadlines

  • Application requirements

  • Cost of attendance

  • Financial aid offerings

  • Scholarship deadlines

  • Test requirements

  • Housing considerations

  • Campus tour opportunities


Another organizational practice is to create a Google Drive folder dedicated to your college admissions process. The folder should contain your college list, your research on colleges, any drafted writing materials you have, and other documents related to the colleges you have chosen on your list. 



As you begin to build your college list, remember that this journey is uniquely yours. Starting early, understanding your wants and needs, and conducting thorough research are the stepping stones toward creating a list of colleges tailored to your dreams. Stay organized and keep your options open, allowing your list to evolve as you discover more about each institution. Ultimately, your college list is not just a compilation of names; it's your key to unlocking the door to your higher educational experience. So, embrace the process, trust in your choices, and get ready to step into a future where your academic and personal aspirations can flourish!

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