Important Guidelines to Select Your Ideal College

How can you select your ideal college

Methods to put together your very own college list to have the best chance of being accepted

Deciding which college to apply to in the US can be daunting. Where do you begin? With over 5000 educational institutions to choose from, you are most probably at your wit’s end of how to go about selecting a college or university.

Since you are keen on studying in the US you will already be aware of reputed educational institutions like Princeton University, Harvard University, Columbia University, Stanford University, etc.

However, you are most probably clueless about how each of these colleges is unique and how many other alternatives you can choose from.

If you are under-informed about the kind of options you can have access to, you may commit either of the two mistakes while putting together your college list:

Sending applications to numerous colleges

You will know or have heard of students who have sent undergraduate admission applications to 20-30 colleges with the expectation of being accepted in at least one of the reputed colleges. But this grand plan is like shooting in the dark because the student dilutes the application process, as he has to allocate his time and care to so many applications. As a result, his applications will be of a poor standard.

Sending applications to just the reputed colleges

Many students are horse blinkered and send undergraduate admission applications to either the colleges in their neighbourhood or to some of the reputed colleges. They are limited by their poor knowledge of the options available. As a result, they may miss the chance of applying to a reputed college that may match their academic goals and be a good fit for them. So, for instance, many students will apply to Princeton University or Columbia University because they know that these are reputed universities but miss out on applying to Northwestern University or Duke University.

It will be advantageous for you to first explore all the educational institutions and understand which of them offer the program you want to pursue. Thereafter, you should compile a list of colleges that are a good mix of ‘reach’, ‘target’, and ‘safety’ colleges.

While you are compiling this list, include only those colleges that you’d love to study at – why suffer something for four years after all the effort you put in to get there?

For a novice, compiling such a list from the maze of educational institutions in the US can be challenging so we’ve put down features you should examine while attending to this critical task.

Feature #1

Applying to many colleges

Sending out undergraduate admission applications to many colleges enhances your chances of being accepted – by the law of averages.

But when you send undergraduate admission applications, your intention should be to get accepted at a specific college – leaving no room to chance. It is different when you apply for a graduate program since then, you will be aspiring to simply get accepted somewhere.

While putting together your college list, choose 10-12 colleges, and broadly split them into three categories:

  • Safety Colleges – your high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores will be beyond the 75th percentile of students who are accepted. So you will have an assurance of being accepted on the basis of your academic profile.

Include 2-3 such colleges on your list.

  • Target Colleges – your high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores will be in the region of the 50th and 75th percentile of students who are accepted. So you will have a good chance of being accepted on the basis of your academic profile.

Include 4-6 such colleges on your list.

  • Reach Colleges – your high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores will be in the region of the 25th and 50th percentile of students who are accepted. So your chances of being accepted on the basis of your academic profile stand in balance – it can sway either way.

Include 3-4 such colleges on your list.

  • Far Reach Colleges – your high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores will be less than that of the 25th percentile of students who are accepted. So your chances of being accepted on the basis of your academic profile will be lean.

Including 1 such college on your list is optional.

An aside:

While compiling your list be aware of your academic profile and thus be realistic of your chances of being accepted at the Ivy League and reputed colleges where the acceptance rate is in single digits.

If your high school GPA and SAT/ACT score aren’t a match for the undergraduate admission requirements at such reputed colleges, it’s better to include such colleges in the ‘reach’ or’ far reach’ category.

Generally, such colleges are very picky and will not necessarily be swayed by an outstanding extracurricular profile, fantastic essays, and personal statement, your choosing to apply early even when your grades are within the acceptable range. So it’s hard to include such colleges in the ‘safety’ or ‘target’ category.

You should send undergraduate admission applications to only those colleges that you would love to study at. Even if your chances are good of being accepted at a college, it should not be the reason you include it in your ‘safety college’ list if you aren’t very excited about studying at that college. When there are so many colleges to choose from why should you spend all that time and effort to apply to the college and settle for something that doesn’t excite you?

An aside:

There are some universities like the University of California that has numerous campuses in the state. So when a student applies to more than one of the numerous colleges of the University of California, it should be counted as just one application as UC needs only one application with the same essays, etc.

If you think to have excellent high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores will open up doors to the best colleges for you, then, you are sadly mistaken. When college admission staff peruses undergraduate admission applications, they may use these scores for segregating students but it won’t influence their selection totally. Before accepting a student, they peruse all aspects of the student applications – the student’s social circumstances, extracurricular profile, and all other factors that have shaped the student. So your GPA and test scores will demonstrate your academic capabilities but you should use the essays to the hilt to showcase yourself.

Feature #2

Choosing a Major, a Program or an Opportunity

The majors and programs that are offered by colleges that are in the same grade/level will never be the same. Each university will have something unique to offer so you must peruse the details before putting any college in your list.

Choosing a Major

Before including a college in your list, you will have checked that they offer the major you are interested in. For instance, if you are interested in Agriculture Science or Hotel Management, and cannot decide whether to include Cornell or Dartmouth in your list, you should go for Cornell that offers better programs in both the majors.

You should also consider keeping your options open for a change in your leanings towards a major. So include those colleges that have fascinating options too which you can explore if necessary.

Choosing a Program

Think ahead – chalk out your academic and career goals. By doing this, you will simplify your college selection since you will know exactly what you want to achieve from a program.

For instance, if you want to take up journalism with a special interest in reporting news in the Middle East, you have spelled out your needs to the last detail. Northwestern University will be the best fit for you because it not only has the reputed Medill School of Journalism but also a Middle East study abroad program.

Choosing an Opportunity

While choosing a college you should also consider the various extracurricular activities that it offers, and which may be of interest to you. Such activities may include the athletics program, volunteering, doing community service, participating in socially relevant initiatives, etc.

Feature #3

Program Cost and Financial Assistance

Studying at a college in the US doesn’t come cheap. You are either born with a silver spoon and have no such monetary concerns, or you and your parents will have to look for avenues to pay for your education. This could even lead to taking loans to pursue your dreams.

In 2017-18 the cost of studying at private, non-profit colleges for a four-year program in the US had increased by 26% over a period of ten years. The increase was 37% at public colleges for a four-year program and 32% for a two-year program. The US College Board arrived at these figures after considering inflation.

I have only re-phrased this – please check if you want to update these figures

The current cost of studying at a US college is:

Tuition and Fees, Room and Board, Total

  1. Private, non-profit colleges four-year program:

$35,830 + $12,680 = $48,510*

  1. Public colleges four-year program:

$10,230 + $11,140 = $21,370*

  1. Public two-year program:

$3,600 + $8660 = $12,320*

* These are ballpark figures

FYI, I picked up the above figures from

While the figures mentioned above can make your head spin, it doesn’t give you the whole picture. On the one hand are the public colleges with remarkably lower tuition fees and on the other, the reputed private colleges that charge over three times what a public college charges. But it is the private colleges that receive a lot of donations and funding from alumni and therefore, can offer financial aid to a large percentage of applicants.

In reality, while studying at a private college looks like an expensive affair, most of the students will have to pay very much less than the listed costs since it will be taken care of with merit or need-based financial aid or grants.

Students can meet their other financial needs with loans, on-campus work, and scholarships.

Be aware that your family may not fulfill the pre-requisites for you to be eligible for need-based aid. So you should keep your options open to include colleges that offer merit-based aid. The best colleges – that includes all the Ivy League universities and crème de la crème universities, seldom offer merit-based financial aid since all the students who apply are academically outstanding students.

Feature #4

Where and how big or small is the college?

First and foremost, you should be clear in your mind about where you want to spend your undergraduate years.

Besides considering the academic program that you wish to pursue which is offered by a college, the kind of life you will lead for those four years is also of great consequence. So you should ask yourself the following questions when you are compiling your college list:

  • Will I be happier studying at a college in an urban or rural setting?
  • Will I be able to cope with living in a cold place or will I be more comfortable in a sunnier place?
  • Will I be able to live far from my family?

When it comes to the size of a college, it can range from the student body comprising 8,000+ students or 25,000+ students.

The colleges themselves try to devote time to students by having smaller classes – especially for the higher classes so that the teaching process is more personal.

Students also can get help from teaching assistants so they don’t feel lost.

Besides, there are always numerous community-building pursuits.

So while each college will offer you a different experience, if you are overwhelmed when amidst crowds, then you may feel lost in a large setting.

However, large colleges have their own advantages. If you have an inclination for athletics, it is the larger colleges that have powerful athletic programs that few small colleges can match. Besides, when will you ever get a chance to interact and make friends with students from different parts of the world?

When it comes to size, there can be no correct choice as this is something that has to work for you as an individual. So you should discuss this with your family who knows you well and can help you in making choices that will be best suited for you.

Feature #5

Choosing a reputed college?

Your teacher or counsellor will most probably try hard to din it into your head that being accepted by a college that is a ‘good and apt fit’ is much more significant than studying at ‘one of the best colleges’. Perhaps this is a sweet pill rationale made in anticipation to cushion the possibility of your being unable to get accepted at one of the best colleges.

But how can anybody slot colleges separately in such categories?

You should aspire to find your way into one of the top colleges that is a good and apt fit for you.

By aiming for, and studying at a reputed college in the US, you will reap many benefits. You will:

  • Pursue the best programs offered
  • Have the best facilities to pursue your studies
  • Learn from the best faculty
  • Connect with the sharpest minds and build an awesome alumni network
  • Get picked to work at prestigious companies
  • Earn well
  • Build an excellent portfolio

Not studying at a reputable college will not be the end of the road for you. However, it’s not because of people’s fanciful ideas and beliefs that some colleges are flooded with applications than many others.

There’s a lot more to it.

Besides studying at a reputed college, you will feel on top of the world when you graduate from there and your family, friends, and any acquaintance will see you in a different light thereafter.

And Lastly

All undergraduate admission applications come with one of the two responses:

  • ‘Congratulations!’
  • ‘We are sorry to inform you…’

The response you receive will largely depend on your selection of the right colleges that you send out applications to.

The choice of college you make will influence your academic, financial, and personal life over the four years that you study and thereafter.

So rather than living in a fool’s paradise and having an unachievable college wish list, it makes more sense to compile your college list based on facts and reality so that you will be accepted at a college that you have chosen with your eyes wide open.