How to Build a Great College List
July 3, 2020
Choosing a university is a complex and time-consuming decision that begins with you. Many students take the shortcut of looking at the "Top 20" list, but truthfully, that is a huge mistake.
There are thousands of universities in the United States, and all of them have their own strengths. Besides, most of the "Top 20" lists are full of Ivy League and hyper-competitive universities, and while you may be eligible for admission based on your previous accolades, you are still considered a reach.
Why is that? Take Harvard College, for example. With over 43,000 applicants for the Class of 2023, slight over 4% were accepted. According to their admissions statistics, the vast majority placed in the upper percentiles of the SAT exam and had near-perfect grades. This means that potentially tens of thousands of applicants were denied, regardless of their competitive profile. The same story lies with the entire Ivy League, and other private and public schools that constantly makeup the "Top 20" list.
So, you might be thinking, "If I have perfect scores and aren't guaranteed a spot in a 'Top 20' school, what's the point of going to the United States for higher education?"
The truth is, there are plenty of great schools in the US that do not make the top 20 lists based on arbitrary reasons. More insight is needed to discover the depth of university offerings in the States.
Another example is the list of so-called "Public Ivies," which are public universities that are considered to offer similar student experience, vast resources, and an enlightening education, without the minuscule acceptance rate. Michigan State University is considered to be a Public Ivy, with a relatively high acceptance rate - around 70% on average. That's right: a public state university, considered to provide a similar educational experience to that of the Ivy League, admitting every 71 out of 100 applicants.
In addition to Michigan State are dozens of schools that fit the criteria, as well as other types of lists like "Southern Ivies." The point is not to put too much emphasis on a "top schools" list, but rather, discover your own aspirations, interests, and ideal university experience in the United States.
The following questions are designed for you to become an expert on yourself before building a college list. Are you someone who values a liberal arts education, but wants to study computer science and technology? Do you value extracurriculars such as public debate or finance? What kind of course offerings and resources do you consider important? Are you looking for any particular clubs to
Exercise: Know Yourself
- What has been your favourite class in high school? Why did you like it?
- What are some of your non-academic interests/hobbies? What do you do for fun?
- What do you dislike doing or do out of obligation?
- What social, political, or other issues are important to you? How do you participate in these issues?
- When was the last time you were in “the zone” and totally lost track of time? What were you doing?
- What would you do if you knew you would not be judged or fail?
- What do you love helping people with? How do you most commonly help others?
- What did you like to spend your time doing as a child? Do you still enjoy doing this?
- What careers do you find yourself dreaming of? What jobs do others have that you wish were yours?
- What is something you want to make sure to do in your lifetime?
After writing your answers in the spaces provided, keep this form close by while you begin the journey of creating your college list.
Start Putting Together your College List!
Completing the previous worksheet will provide you with a reference, roadmap, and plan to determine your best college fit. One thing that is missing is your own credentials, in particular your GPA and standardised tests scores, if the school requires the latter. These scores are considered to be among the most important factors for admissions, as universities constantly provide these scores along with their admissions data annually. However, times are changing, and more schools are dropping the SAT requirement. For now, we will keep these two factors in mind in determining your opportunities at admission.
In beginning your college list, the best place to start would be somewhere like Niche.com, an informative website that is fueled by reviews from alumni and current students. Niche is a database of college rankings, information, and feedback about universities across the United States.
You can begin by going to the website and searching for your desired major – if you are stuck between two majors, that is completely fine. Search for one major first and take note of the list. If location was important to you, you can easily make a distinction by searching for the location of the university through Google Maps (open on a separate tab.) If location isn’t important, disregard this step. These universities are already listed in terms of rankings, although the ranks are unofficial, but similar to ranks from popular outlets such as US News.
Read through the details of each school, and take note of their acceptance rate, SAT range, and more. If the school is one you’re interested in and want to include in your list, fill out the portions of the College List Template Excel file and keep that information there. You will also have to fill out your own GPA at the top of the Excel spreadsheet, along with your standardized test scores. It’s important to note that some schools accept a “SuperScore,” which is the taking your highest score for each section on multiple examples. On the other hand, some schools only accept “Score Choice,” which allows you to choose your highest score on a single exam. A link to the official PDF from Collegeboard is available in the College List Template within the “SuperScore/Score Choice” cell.
Continue learning about any schools you haven’t heard of outside of the Niche website. YouTube is an invaluable source with many current and former students promoting videos of campus life, their daily schedule, and their opinions of the school. You may even get a virtual tour of the campus on the university’s official account page. In addition to YouTube, visiting the actual university website is important. There, you would need to get adjusted to the abundance of information available. Use your previous worksheets to find anything important you want to learn more about that wasn’t made clear through Niche and YouTube.
For example, you might be wondering what kind of labs and research opportunities are available for first year students – you would likely be able to find this information under a “resources” tab, or by simply performing a search through the websites search function. You can also Google anything you’re curious about, sometimes using the search engine is more efficient than using the college website’s features.
Once you have about ten schools on your College List, compare your standardized test scores and GPA to the admission statistics. First and foremost, it’s important to keep in mind that regardless of your class standing and scores, any school that has an acceptance rate at, or around 20% is considered to be a reach school. This includes all of the Ivy League schools and multiple private and public universities. If a university accepts 20% of their students and provides a relatively long SAT range, then it reveals that students with high scores were still denied.
Out of ten schools, only 2-3 should be considered reach. The other 6-7 schools should be a mixture of match and safety schools. It will be harder to determine any of these categories for schools that don’t have the SAT requirement, but for those that do, you simply take your SAT score and GPA and weigh them against previous admission statistics. Let’s use William & Mary as an example.
For the 2017-18 admitted students data, William & Mary revealed that the total SAT range was from 1300 – 1480. In order to find the “Middle 50%,” you add the range together. At a total of 2780, you then divide by 2 to get 1390 as the Middle 50%. If your SAT score is between the Middle 50% and the high end of the range, meaning that in this example, you score is between 1390 – 1480, then the school is considered a match.
If your score is above the high end of the SAT range, meaning it is at least 1490 in this example, the school is considered a safety. If your SAT score is below the Middle 50% mark, in this case under 1390, then the school is considered a reach. This formula will help you organize your list – of course, there are additional factors in play outside of your SAT scores (and your SAT scores may not matter at all based on recent news for many schools) but the importance of researching your school, and creating a college list that complements the roadmap and other ideas provided on the worksheet will make your college list building a lot more pleasant.
More importantly, the goal after you complete your college admissions is that you will have multiple schools to choose from, all which provide aspects of higher education that you have interests in, not just for academics but for anything else that appeals to you.
About the College List Template – as shown is a filled out, College List with information for the 2019-2020 college application season. Use this as a placeholder for now and replace cells as you make decisions on which schools to include, and their requirements. This will help you organize the abundance of application essays and other materials you’ll put together for college applications.
Prioritising Factors in School Selection
This activity is aimed at helping you identify items and offerings that are available in a university environment and defining how important each factor is to you.
It is important to keep in mind that the university selection process is somewhat related to a negotiation – you may find a university with a reputable computer science program, but potentially lacking Greek life and extracurricular activities. In these situations, the perfect university may be one that you are willing to make a compromise on, but one that is related to your answers to the previous worksheets and in this activity. Remember, you decide what matters the most, it is four years of your life and you want to make sure you prioritize the factors that are most meaningful to you.
Below is a list of factors that are likely to influence your decision in choosing a university. Focusing on each factor, take several minutes to brainstorm how you envision the specific factor to be at your university. Are you looking for a school that encourages you to spend your entire days inside of the library, with lots of homework? If you find that you’re really engulfed in a subject and committed to post-graduate education, this type of work-life balance might appeal to you.
Another question to ask is how meaningful is prestige to you? Do you need to be in a large coastal city or are happy in mid-western state with a smaller population? How about campus type – do you prefer a “college town,” urban university, or rural setting? For this part, you don’t actually need to compare schools just yet, but if you are stumped on the differences between the campus types or sizes of a university, you can find some videos online to get a better idea. Search for schools in “college towns,” such as Amherst College, or “rural schools,” such as Hillsdale College, or “urban universities,” such as MIT. Here is a list of factors to consider in during your brainstorming session:
- Work-Life balance
- Major options (such as if they have a gender studies major)
- % international students
- Class sizes
- Social environment
- Campus type (urban vs rural, closed vs open)
Once you have written notes for each factor in this list, place them in order of importance. Keep in mind some factors you feel are important might be missing in the list, so feel free to add them in your order of importance.
Below is an example of the same list, organized by priority for me:
- Intramural Sports
- Campus type (urban vs rural, closed vs open)
- Major options
- Work-Life balance
- Access to labs
- Option to take classes outside of major
- Option to double major/minor
- Public vs Private
- Extracurricular Activities
Along with the previous worksheets, this list of priorities will serve as an important framework as you conduct research about universities.
Location: Inside large west coast city, such as Los Angeles, or within one hour driving
Weather: No snow, prefer sunny year-round
Campus Type: Urban or Suburban
Intramural Sports: Being on a basketball or flag football team is important for my enjoyment and fitness. Intramural sports should be available multiple days a week in the morning.
Prestige: Not important
Cost: Access to financial aid for international students, or scholarships for international students is especially important
Work-Life Balance: As long as I can play my intramural sports, I am willing to work on my assignments and inside of a research lab the rest of the day. I want to learn as much as possible and am curious about sociology, physics, and anthropology.
Access to Labs: This is a must; I am interested in physics and also want to get involved in robotics.
Your Personal Roadmap
Your personal roadmap is a device that will help you discover what path you want to go towards now. Over time this may be something different due to our varying life experiences and changes in our goals and interests. But many aspirations and ideas you’ve developed over the years may remain the same and a roadmap will help you to identify what you want to prioritize or aim for. What is authentic for us, in contrast to societal expectations, and pressures from our peers or family, is what creates fulfillment. Through research and observation, you will develop the most suitable plan for yourself. The goal here is coherency. In determining who you are, what you believe, and what you are doing are aligned, making life fulfilling and significant.
The following exercises are provided to help guide you through your later decisions, such as choosing a major and the type of school you want to attend. Similar to the first worksheet, completion of these exercises should be kept nearby while continuing the development of your college list. Use it as a benchmark as you consider various options. In it, you will be asked to reflect upon your opinions of school, work, and life. You’ll then look at how these views are aligned, or where they might contradict each other.
The conclusions from this exercise may surprise you, and that’s completely fine. While you originally thought your ideas and answers were the same as everybody else, you’ll learn more about your unique perspectives and relate them to the ideal environment. This will help navigate university websites while performing your research and encourage you to ask the right questions for college recruiters and admissions officers, either in person or by mail. Most importantly, you will find what is most importance and precise accordingly to your personality and worldview.
Exercise: About Your Dream School
Take at least 15 minutes to answer questions related to school
- What makes a good education good?
- What is school for?
- What makes education worth investing time, money and energy into?
- What do prestige, knowledge, and social environment have to do with it?
- How does it relate to preparation for life and personal development?
Exercise: About Your Work
Take at least 15 minutes to answer questions related to work.
- Why work?
- What is work for?
- What does work mean?
- How does it relate to the individual, others, society?
- What defines good or worthwhile work?
- What do experience, growth and fulfilment have to do with it?
Take at least 15 minutes to answer questions related to life.
- What makes a good life good?
- When you look back many years from now, what do you want to have characterized your life?
- In what ways do you want to contribute to your family, community or society?
- What do money, fame, and personal accomplishment have to do with a satisfying life?
Exercise: Determining Cohesion
Take at least 15 minutes to review your responses and answer the questions below.
- Where do your views on work, life and school complement one another?
- Where do they clash?
- Does one inform the other? How?
Now that you’ve articulated and aligned your perspectives on school, work, and life, you can develop a roadmap for the type of future you believe in, including the learning environment and experience (school), your ideal occupation or job responsibilities (work), and how you envision your future to become (life). Is there a possibility that you decide to take a different turn on your roadmap? Yes! Once you get accepted into multiple universities, you still have to choose one at the end. Even then, once you’re in university, you may change your major and perspective on the type of career you want to pursue.
With this roadmap, you can always have a sense of direction and prevent the risk of getting lost.