Developing a working college list no later than junior year, and finalizing it before senior year begins, is what sets the most competitive applicants apart. If there's one thing about college admissions that high school students should learn upfront, it's that all roads in high school lead from where you intend to apply to college. The colleges on your list will determine the minimum GPA you should aim for, which standardized tests you need take (and the scores required to make you a competitive candidate), how many essays you will need to write, what kind of scholarship opportunities may be available, which other application deliverables you may need to prepare, application/testing/scholarship deadlines, and much more.
Whether you're a sophomore or a senior, it's never too early to start thinking about where you aspire to attend college, and how you can start building your application assets to be a competitive candidate by the time you apply. In this post, I'll explain our five-step process to identifying your colleges of interest. I'll also describe how I work with my college admissions consulting students to professionally guide them in developing their preliminary and final college lists.
"No one in my family knew anything about any of this process, so we were all kind of in the dark. My parents suggested that I get a list together so that we could go visit colleges, but I didn't know where to start with that. That uncertainty drew us toward looking for some help. When Frontier Tutoring visited Dimond, my mom [signed me up for professional college admissions advising]. "
This post includes commentary from Anja L., a Dimond High School graduate who earned a 97th percentile SAT score, was accepted to Middlebury, and was awarded a $46,000 scholarship at Montana State (eligibility criteria generally include 95th+ percentile SAT/ACT scores, 3.8+ GPA, track record of leadership/honors/high-impact extracurriculars, and essay application). Anja completed college admissions consulting with us during the 2018/19 application cycle, as well as SAT prep and precalculus tutoring during her junior year. During our college admissions consulting program, I worked with Anja to develop her college list and plan her essays. In the full interview, Anja speaks about her college goals, the research and list building process, experience with SAT preparation, and motivation to seek professional guidance.
Step 1: Start Early
It’s never too early to begin exploring colleges during high school, but I recommend students begin researching colleges and building their college lists in earnest no later than spring of junior year. The earlier you start to identify colleges you are interested in, the more time you'll have to make strategic changes to your coursework, academic performance, testing plans, and extracurricular participation. Finalizing your college list prior to senior year also unlocks time for you to work on applications during senior year. Let's explore a few examples.
Benefits of Identifying Your College List Early for Freshmen, Sophomores, and Juniors
Changing Your Coursework
Identifying colleges early allows you to tailor your high school course registration. For example, the University of Washington requires freshman applicants to have taken certain courses throughout their high school career. Knowing prior to the end of your junior year that UW requires 2 credits of World Languages and 0.5 credits of Fine, Visual, or Performing Arts would enable you to plan your senior year coursework to meet those requirements.
Adjusting Your Academic Performance
Of all the things college admissions officers evaluate in your application, your high school grades by far carry the most weight. And the further you go in high school, the harder it becomes to improve your cumulative GPA. Knowing your target GPA earlier in high school makes it more likely you'll be able to achieve it, especially if your target GPA is higher than your current GPA. Here's an illustrative example:
Note: Generally, admissions committees give your most recent grades more weight in their evaluation. Accordingly, even if you can’t improve your cumulative GPA all the way to the median for the colleges you’re interested in by the end of your junior year, it’s still worth demonstrating your strongest possible performance between now and when you submit applications. Need help? Check out our academic tutoring programs in math, science, and English.
Benefits of Identifying Your College List Early for Juniors and Rising Seniors
Finishing college research no later than the summer after junior year can also help to reduce stress and make time management easier during senior year, when students are already juggling senior year coursework, extracurricular activities, and college applications. For juniors and seniors, some additional advantages to starting early include:
Getting a Head Start on Application Materials
Identifying colleges early means you can also identify which applications they use and the specific application requirements you will be responsible for, such as letters of recommendation and SAT Subject Tests, early on. For example, if any of your colleges of interest use the Common Application, you can start working on your main Common App essay during the summer before senior year. The Common Application usually publishes the following year’s essay prompts by the end of January (i.e. the prompts for students applying in 2019/20 were released in January 2019). Developing your personal statement is one of the most important aspects of the college application process, so knowing the essay prompts for your target schools in advance—and therefore having more time to brainstorm and plan your writing—will benefit you significantly during the application process.
"[Starting college research during junior year] definitely helped me because [I could then start planning my essays earlier]. Writing a last minute essay is not the way to do it, especially if it's for college. You want to make sure the essay is refined and exactly how you want it. Being able to have the time to write a draft, and write out multiple ideas, and edit that draft multiple times, helped my confidence level in submitting that essay."
Scheduling College Visits
If you have a preliminary college list compiled by the end of junior year, you'll have the opportunity to use your spring or summer breaks to visit colleges of interest or attend special preview days. If a college visit trip is feasible for you, it can be a useful way to test your assumptions about what you value in a college, allowing you to refine and ultimately finalize your college list with confidence.
"[If I hadn’t started working on my college list early in junior year], I couldn't have gone to visit the schools I did end up visiting. I don't think I'm going to choose any of the places that I did visit, but it helped me to go to colleges, see what they were about, and learn what I was kind of attracted to in a college—what kind of campus, how big, what kind of area."
Step 2: Consider Your Assets and Preferences
The two primary factors you need to consider when beginning your college research are (i) your preexisting academic (GPA and coursework), testing (baseline or target scores on the SAT/ACT and SAT Subject Tests), and extracurricular assets, and (ii) your personal preferences and “must-have” criteria in a college. Let's take a closer look at each of these factors.
Factor 1: Your Academic, Testing, and Extracurricular Assets
Your Academic Track Record and Coursework
Be realistic in terms of how your academic profile compares to the norms for your colleges of interest. To start, if you're not already a senior, consider your current cumulative GPA and how it could potentially change by the end of the spring semester of your junior year.
Download our free GPA Scenario Calculators Kit to calculate your end-of-junior-year cumulative GPA based on the grades you expect to earn between now and then.
How does that projected GPA compare to the averages for admitted students at the types of colleges you are interested in? For example, if your projected cumulative GPA at the end of junior year is a 3.5, then don’t build a college list consisting only of schools where the average GPA for admitted students is 3.75+. (See Step 4: Developing Your List for a discussion about including a mix of "reach," "match," and "likely" colleges on your list.)
Download The Frontier 49 for a list of of average GPAs and SAT/ACT scores, along with acceptance rates, for admitted students at 49 popular colleges where Alaska students apply.
Likewise, be aware of how your high school coursework relates to the curriculum requirements or expectations for the colleges you're targeting. For example, if you are interested in applying to highly competitive STEM schools such as CalTech, but you aren’t on track to take advanced math classes (like AP Calculus) by the end of high school, you may need to adjust your plans to accelerate your math coursework. Some colleges, like University of Washington and the University of California system, also require entering freshmen to have completed a specific number of credits in various academic categories—which may differ from your high school's graduation requirements—in order to even apply.
Your Standardized Testing Results and Plans
Developing your college list early will also enable you to develop your junior and senior year testing strategy. Knowing which colleges you are interested in (or, at the very least, what type of colleges—e.g., Ivy League, competitive liberal arts, or WUE schools), will help you to set your target SAT/ACT score, determine what level of preparation will be required to achieve the improvement you need, and decide when and how many times you should take those tests. The earlier you develop your target SAT/ACT score, the more time you will have to prepare, take the SAT/ACT, and, if necessary, further prepare and retake the SAT/ACT. Having your preliminary college list will also allow you to determine whether you need to take SAT Subject Tests.
"Working on my college list during junior year was important because it meant that I figured out I needed a higher SAT score. If I had only figured that out during senior year, it would have been too late for [me to make the required improvement]."
Your Extracurricular Portfolio
Your portfolio of extracurricular activities is one of the application assets that is the particularly difficult to improve or expand once you are already a senior. Students interested in applying to highly selective colleges (which tend to scrutinize extracurricular participation more closely than less competitive schools) should be progressively building their extracurricular resume starting as early as freshman or sophomore year of high school. Earlier in high school, students should focus on breadth of extracurriculars as a mechanism to explore potential major/career interests. Later in high school, students should focus on depth, becoming more closely involved in a handful of activities, including taking leadership positions and developing recommendations with activity sponsors, such as teachers or coaches, who may serve as effective recommendation writers.
Some colleges look for applicants to demonstrate certain values through their extracurricular participation. For example, the mission of Claremont McKenna College (a competitive private liberal arts college) is to “prepare students for thoughtful and responsible leadership,” so competitive applicants would want to plan ahead to ensure their extracurricular activities demonstrate leadership experiences, as well as target their application essays accordingly.
Factor 2: Your Personal Preferences and "Must-Have" Criteria in a College
One helpful way to narrow your search criteria is to brainstorm a list of what’s important to you in a college. Many students have trouble identifying these criteria and, as I describe below, I walk my college admissions consulting students through a structured process to make informed choices along each of the following preference domains.
While many students ultimately enter college as “undecided” in terms of their intended major, having at least a general of an idea about what you want to major in (e.g., STEM vs. humanities vs. business) will help you to narrow your scope of college research. Some majors are likely to be offered at most 4-year universities (e.g., English, biology, and psychology), but more niche majors (e.g., biomedical engineering, nursing, and international relations) may be available at a narrower band of colleges. There’s little point in applying to a college that lacks academic programs that interest you. Thus, narrowing down your major interests is also an important factor in identifying your colleges of interest.
Here are nine other attributes that differentiate colleges to help kick off your thought process on what matters to you. As a preliminary exercise to kick off your thought process, I suggest listing a few "must-have" and "nice-to-have" criteria from this list (e.g., if you are dead set on attending college on the East Coast, a specific location would be among your "must-have" criteria). If one of these nine attributes doesn’t make it onto your "must-have" or "nice-to-have" list, then you likely don’t need to worry about it when you’re evaluating colleges.
- Location: Geographic region, weather, urban/suburban/rural
- Size: Big state school? Small private college? Somewhere in between? Preferences on class sizes (faculty/student ratio) and whether general education classes are taught by professors or teaching assistants?
- Campus Environment: Big party school? Popular athletics? Greek life? Intellectual/research atmosphere? Religious affiliation? Faculty credentials?
- Academic Programs: Reputation for specific academic programs you’re interested in? Undergraduate research? Internship and study abroad opportunities?
- Extracurricular Activities: Athletics, clubs, volunteering, worship
- Cost: Don't rule out a school with a high "sticker price" until you have weighed how much financial aid (in the form of grants, scholarships, and loans) you can receive.
- Retention/Graduation Rates: What percentage of freshmen return to their school for their sophomore year (retention rate)? What percentage successfully go on to graduate?
- Diversity: Ethnic, racial, geographic, gender, religious, and other make-up of student and staff
- Ranking/Selectivity: We don't recommend focusing your college list around perceived prestige or (often uninformative) rankings. Your future success will, in large part, be determined not by where you go to college, but by what you do while you’re there. However, if ranking is important to you, then acknowledge this, and still plan to ultimately compile a list with an appropriate mix of "reach," "match," and "likely" schools (see more below).
Step 3: Research Colleges
Once you have a general sense of your academic, testing, and extracurricular assets (from Step 1) and your selection criteria (from Step 2), it's time to research colleges to determine which ones fit the bill. College research can simultaneously be one of the most exciting and frustrating parts of the list-building process. With so many online resources available, it can be easy to get overwhelmed with all of the options. Learning how to use online resources thoughtfully can make them much more helpful. In addition, though students often overlook them, offline resources can be equally valuable. Here are the main preliminary resources I recommend to students embarking on the college search process, all of which come with pros and cons.
If you aren’t sure where to start, talking to an expert is a great first step to begin the conversation about college research.
- Your high school counselor may be able share resources with you such as websites, books, and marketing materials directly from colleges, or let you know when admissions representatives are coming to visit your school—but particularly at public schools, they may not have much time to engage with you in detailed, one-on-one conversations, or have up-to-date knowledge about a wide range of colleges.
- On the other hand, an independent college consultant, someone with certification in college counseling who is a member of a professional organization like IECA or NACAC, is more likely to have the time, resources, and targeted expertise to help you navigate the college research process. If you'd like to work with me, check out our college admissions consulting programs.
Family and Friends
Recommendations from family, friends, and acquaintances are often the first step in thinking about what colleges a student might be interested in. First-hand knowledge is a great resource, but you also want to consider the source. For example, the experience of a parent, who attended a particular university 20+ years ago, may not be representative of what that university is like today. Likewise, the perfect school for your best friend is unlikely to be the perfect school for you.
The wealth of information available online can be both a benefit and risk. Below I’ve linked a few helpful online resources and databases that can be used in the research process.
- College Board – Big Future
- U.S. News & World Report lists (I mention this resource not because of the specific college rankings, but because USNWR includes 50+ types of college lists—e.g., liberal arts, engineering business, best value, etc.—to guide your initial thinking)
Books in Print
Books written by college admissions experts can be a useful resource, as they may provide a narrative for the college research/application process or aggregate and organize vast amounts information about colleges. Some may be updated on a yearly basis, like the Fiske Guide to Colleges, but be careful to pay attention to the publication date, as the college admissions landscape changes from year to year.
College Fairs/Informational Sessions
One of the best ways to access up-to-date information about an individual college’s current institutional priorities and what they are looking for in a student is to speak with a representative from the school. Annual college fairs or information sessions at your high school can be useful opportunities to not only learn about colleges, but also to demonstrate your interest in a college you're already targeting by speaking with an admissions representative.
If you have already taken a standardized test like the PSAT/SAT/ACT, then you have likely begun receiving marketing materials directly from colleges. You can also request information from colleges, including specific details about special programs, majors, financial aid and scholarships, etc. These brochures and viewbooks can be helpful for getting a sense for what a college offers, but keep in mind that a college’s marketing materials are designed to present them in the best possible light, so you may want to view these publications more critically.
Step 4: Develop Your Preliminary College List
By now, you've considered your academic, testing, and extracurricular profile (Step 1) and your intended major and other personal preferences (Step 2). You've also begun researching colleges that align with these factors (Step 3). While your research may continue throughout the application process, at some point (ideally during junior year or early in the summer before senior year), you will need to start adding schools to a preliminary list of 10-20 colleges where you are interested in applying. While there’s no perfect way to develop your preliminary college list, there are two important factors to consider when deciding whether to add a school to your preliminary list: admission competitiveness and application timing.
Admission Competitiveness - "Reach," "Match," and "Likely"
Clearly, not all colleges are as easy or as difficult to be admitted to. Not only do overall admission rates vary widely across schools (from 5% at colleges such as Harvard and Stanford, to 80% at University of Colorado Boulder), but you personally will be more or less competitive for certain schools depending on your individual attributes (academic and testing history, major/career interests, extracurricular background, underrepresented minority status, legacy status, etc.).
As a starting point, you need to make sure your preliminary and final college lists include a mix of reach, match, and likely schools. Whether a school is a reach, match, or likely for you depends on how your “numbers”—your GPA, the rigor of your coursework, and your SAT/ACT/SAT Subject Test scores—stack up relative to the norms for that school. In other words, what kind of grades and test scores do admitted applicants at that school demonstrate?
- A college is a likely for you if your “numbers” fall above the norms for that school – in other words, you are likely to be admitted
- A college is a match for you if your “numbers” are similar to the norms for that school – your chances might be approximately 50/50 at that college
- A college is a reach for you if your “numbers” fall below the norms for that school. You should consider all highly competitive colleges (those admitting fewer than 20% of their applicants, including all Ivy League institutions) as reach schools. You could have 4.0 GPA, be class president, and have 99th percentile SAT or ACT scores, and you still may not be admitted to a highly competitive college.
If your list is comprised only of Ivy League or highly competitive colleges—no matter your academic and extracurricular credentials—you are likely receive a higher number of rejections, fewer options to choose from, and fewer or less generous scholarship offers. On the flip side, if you apply to a well-balanced and thoughtful selection of colleges, you should be positioned to decide among ample admission and financial aid offers—and potentially be able to leverage different schools' aid offers against each other as part of your negotiations.
You should also be considering the application deadlines (and supplemental materials required) at the colleges where you are interested in applying. Are you intending to applying during the Early Decision/Early Action periods (deadlines typically in November) for any colleges? If so, you will need to begin the application process much sooner, ensuring your testing plans have concluded, you’ve secured your letters of recommendation, and you have developed, revised, and finalized your supplemental essays prior to the application deadlines. Some colleges also have very early Regular Decision deadlines, such as University of Washington (November 15th) and all campuses in the University of California system (November 30th). Thus, you need to decide as early as possible whether you plan to apply to those colleges in order to ensure you have time to complete these applications with quality. Additionally, note that you can apply to only one college under early decision or restrictive early action.
Confused about the differences between Early Action, Early Decision, restrictive, and non-binding? Check out our Admission, Testing & Scholarship Deadlines Primer for a quick explanation with sample deadlines.
Step 5: Finalize Your College List
For most students, we recommend applying to 6-8 colleges, with a mix of reach, match, and likely schools. However, for students interested primarily in Ivy League/highly selective colleges, we often advise applying to 10-12 colleges in order to maximize a student’s potential acceptances and financial aid offers. On the flip side, if you're interested primarily in state universities with high admit rates, and your GPA and test scores exceed the applicant standard at those schools, you may be safe applying to only 4-5 colleges. As you narrow down your list of 10-20 colleges from Step 4, some final factors that may affect which and how many colleges should appear are on your final list are:
Time and Energy
How much time do you have to devote to the application process? While the Common Application has made applying to numerous schools much easier, depending on how many colleges appear on your final list, you may still have to write dozens of unique essays as part of the individual college applications.
Writing high-quality essays also requires significant emotional energy and time for self-reflection.
Additionally, if you need to further improve your SAT/ACT scores, or take SAT Subject Tests, for a particular college, consider the time and energy required to do so when evaluating whether to include that college on your final list.
Senior year is already a busy time for students, so adding significant burdens for applications can add significant stress. This is another reason why we advise students to finalize their college lists and begin working on applications and any remaining testing requirements during the spring or junior year or summer before senior year.
"A lot of my friends, when I was in the position of, "Oh, I already have my essay done, like I'm fine," were definitely not in that position. My applications had been ready weeks before the deadline. I just needed to make sure things were perfect. But other friends missed deadlines, and scrambled at the end, and couldn't submit early decision because they didn't have it done. So yeah, it helped having those parts done and not to have to worry about that while I was still in school."
Most colleges charge a fee to submit applications, in the range of $50- $100 each. Even if you are using the Common Application to apply to multiple colleges, or are applying to multiple campuses using the same application (ex: University of California), you will have to pay a fee for each application submitted to individual colleges.
How College Admissions Consulting Works for College List Development
When I work with students to develop their college lists, the process is very collaborative. The precise sequence of steps and resources varies from student to student, but generally follows this timeline:
Step 1: Kick-Off Meeting
Timing: Mid to late junior year
I will meet for approximately one hour with the student (parents are also welcome) to discuss any initial colleges of interest, personal preferences and limitations known at the time, and overall college goals. During this session, we typically complete an intake survey that takes into account all of your potential college preferences, including ones you may not have thought about previously.
I will also provide students and parents an overview of how to use our custom college application planning software to track application progress, access research tools, define tasks, and log communication. If you also need assistance with identifying majors of interest, I will provide you access to our suite of aptitude and interest inventory assessments. If you already have any specific colleges you are interested in applying to, I will task you with starting research on those schools, providing you with specific resources to query.
Students receive access to our custom college application planning software to track application progress, access research tools, define tasks, and log communication.
"I really liked the college planner portal website. It was really helpful to put it all in one place, so it wasn't all scatterbrained all over my computer. Especially when I was on the college tour, it was helpful to be able to pull up really easily information on what they offer and what kind of programs they have. So yeah, I did continue using the portal throughout the application process."
Step 2: Research
Timing: Spring of junior year through early fall of senior year
During the next in-person session after the initial consultation, we will review any research you have already conducted and (if relevant) the results of the aptitude and interest inventory assessments assigned previously. I will then take that information into account as I suggest new colleges for you to consider in your subsequent research. During subsequent face-to-face meetings, we will discuss pros/cons and likes/dislikes for each college, and any questions that may have arisen during your independent research. I may direct you to additional resources to use in your research, or provide guidance about factors you should be considering but haven’t been. As you conduct more research and provide me with more information about your college preferences, I will be able to suggest more targeted colleges for the student to consider and research. As you conduct your independent research, you will likely also discover colleges on your own to add to your developing list. This iterative process generally occurs over a period of 1-3 months.
"Through our time together, I realized I'm just not the type of person who would do well, I think, at a super huge school. But it took a bit of time for me to even figure that out. Researching and even visiting those schools was where I kind of figured that out the most. Going through the various suggestions that you gave me to pick out what I liked and didn't like about each college was also really helpful. And then you could do more research based off of what I said."
Step 3: Narrowing Down the List
Timing: Ideally, by September of senior year
As the research process continues, you and I will add colleges to and delete colleges from your working college list. Students consider anywhere from 10 to 30 colleges throughout the entire process. As the list begins to narrow, if feasible, you may plan college visits to further determine your fit at and interest in these schools. Ultimately, the goal is to arrive at list of approximately 6-10 schools, with a mix of "reach"/"match"/"likely" schools, that you and I (as your college consultant) feel represents a good fit for you. By early fall of senior year, you should have a strong sense of the colleges they will be applying to, although we may add or delete a few schools as the application process begins.
"[Without your help], I probably wouldn't have been able to narrow down my list, and I would have applied to a lot more colleges. And not applying to those places and writing all those essays helped save a lot of time and effort that would have been wasted, and allowed me to focus my energy on the colleges I was applying to."
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Interview with Anja L. - Anja is Dimond High School graduate who completed college admissions consulting with us during the 2018/19 application cycle.
She was accepted to Middlebury and awarded a $46,000 scholarship at Montana State. I worked with Anja to develop her college list and plan her essays. In this interview, Anja speaks about her college goals, the research and list building process, experience with SAT preparation, and motivation to seek professional guidance.