September 1, 2015

Making Your College Wish List

Many students who are beginning their senior year of high school this week are faced with the daunting but exciting task of creating a viable list of colleges and universities to which they will apply. There are thousands of schools in the U.S. and over 500 that take the Common Application.

The Common App allows for only 20 schools on the applicant’s “dashboard.” I have seen wish lists ranging from one dream school to over 50 colleges and universities. Your counselor may provide you with a long list of schools that are matches for you in terms of your GPA, standardized test scores and choice of major, but how do you narrow down such a list?

First, you need to understand that you are both a consumer and an applicant. The next step is to shop around! You wouldn’t buy a car just because it’s red or because your neighbor bought one. You should choose schools that you would definitely attend if admitted, and although you certainly are entitled to apply to a few “reach” schools, it is only sensible to be realistic. You need to create a list that will allow you to sleep at night, knowing that you have reasonable expectations of getting accepted to many of the schools on your list.

Here are some things to consider:

Location, location, location:

  • Do you have a distance limit? How far away from home would you want to be? Do your parents want you within 5 hours of driving distance?
  • Do you prefer a school in a city, a suburb, or a rural area?
  • Is weather or climate a factor in your choice?

Size and demographics:

  • What size student body would you prefer? Schools range from several hundred undergraduates to over 20,000.
  • Is diversity important to you: Ethnic, racial, etc.?
  • How important is religion or religious affiliation to you?
  • Is the male/female ratio important to you?

Living arrangements and social life:

  • Is there any particular kind of housing you prefer (No smoking, drug free, etc.)? Is the size or condition of the dorms important?
  • How important is the availability of different kinds of food and drink on or near campus? Do you have significant dietary needs?
  • Do you plan to participate in particular sports or clubs? How important is the role of spectator sports on campus?
  • Do you want a school with or without Greek life? (Fraternities/sororities)


  • Are you interested in a liberal arts college without graduate programs or research components, or would you prefer a university?
  • Are you interested in a specific school (i.e. business, theatre arts, journalism) or a particular major?
  • Are you looking for a school with special features (honors program, special services for learning disabilities, etc.)?
  • What level of academic rigor do you prefer? (Very rigorous, midrange, less intense)
  • What is your comfort zone in terms of class size?

What sort of shopping can you do?

  • You need to do some serious research. That is important not only for your own sake but because many schools will ask you in the form of a supplementary essay why you want to go there, and you have to have some specific, solid and convincing answers.
  • Read about the schools and keep notes or a spreadsheet on their requirements, benefits and drawback.
  • Go to the websites, take virtual tours, visit some of the schools if it is financially feasible, and read guidebooks that give “behind the scenes” information. The Insider’s Guide to Colleges is particularly useful in that regard.
  • Speak to people who have attended each school.

Then you are ready to enter those names on your dashboard and start the applications!

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