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College Prep: Creating Your College List

Every Monday College Scoops highlights a Guest Editor to share their story, college prep advice, or write a post of a trending topic relating to the college prep process. We enjoy collaborating with many experts in the field to provide our community with valuable content to help you and your son or daughter navigate the college admissions process. This week Carolyn Allison Caplan (aka AdmissionsMom) provides insight into creating a college list, one of the first daunting tasks for high school juniors as they start to plan their college visits. Carolyn works with thousands of high school students on ApplyingToCollege subreddit offering guidance to students as they prepare for their next academic adventure. 

Photo Courtesy of Brooke Cagle, Unsplash


Creating Your College List

In many ways, creating your college list is the single most important aspect of the entire application journey. Creating this list based on your fits requires putting a lot of thought into what you want out of your experience and about who you are and who you want to be. What it doesn’t require is pulling out a U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) and listing the top twenty schools.  Instead, think of your fit (and your list) like a sock, not a shoe. It’s stretchy. That sock can fit on lots of feet, just like you can fit in lots of college campuses. 


College Prep


Here are some basic steps to make this College List Creation a fun, engaging, and meaningful task: 

STEP 1: Gather Your Resources and Giddy Up on the Research!

It’s essential that you spend time reading and researching. You have to discover what feels right for you.

  • Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope, book and website
  • The Fiske Guide to Colleges by Edmund Fiske
  • Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be by Frank Bruni
  • College Match by Steve Antonoff
  • The Best 384 Colleges by Princeton Review
  • Websites and apps. Some of my faves are,,, College Vizzy App (full disclosure — College Vizzy is my app).
  • Common Data Set.  You can use this to find out more info about colleges and what they value in terms of students.
  • College Admissions websites. Sign up to receive info and get on their mailing lists. I can’t emphasize enough to all of you to read each college’s website. They tell you the kind of kids they’re looking for. There’s no secret there. Are you that kid? Don’t try to squish yourself into their mold. 
  • College Admissions Offices’ social media accounts. I suggest following their Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram admissions pages. You can learn more about the culture of the school, and they often add important updates during application season.
  • Student newspapers and college news feeds.


STEP 2: College Visits

Start visiting colleges near you. Any college will help you think about what feels right to you, so look around in your city or town. Visit large schools and small schools. It doesn’t matter if it’s a college you think you would consider or not. Hang out on campus and try to get a feel that works for you. 


STEP 3: Develop Your List as You Think about Fit 

Before you apply to a college, it’s essential to know if that college fits your needs and if you’ll enjoy your time there. As you read books, investigate colleges, and possibly even get to visit them, think about these seven kinds of “fits”:


Financial — Can you afford this college? Will you qualify for financial aid or do you need merit aid because you don’t qualify for enough financial aid, and if so, does this school offer merit aid? If you’re unsure how much a college costs, google search “net price calculator” followed by the name of the college or university. You and your parents need to spend some time thinking about this and going through net price calculators on various college websites. If you can’t afford the price of the school, it’s not a fit. 


School Size — Do you want a large state university with loads of options? Or are you looking for something smaller or mid-sized? Do you want discussion-based, seminar-style classes where you can develop strong relationships with your professors, and it will be noted if you don’t attend class? Or do you want large lectures where the professor might never know who you are and where you can sit anonymously taking notes?


Social Atmosphere — Think about the kind of social life that appeals to you now or that you might want to see yourself having in college. Are you looking for lots of school spirit? Does the thought of Greek life interest you or are you more interested in hanging with kinda quirky kids playing video games in their rooms? Do you want big-time parties? Are you attracted to stress culture or do you want to avoid it at all costs? 


Geographic — What areas of the country appeal to you? Try not to be dismissive right off the bat. Many kids say no to the Deep South or the Midwest without really thinking about it, and in the process, they miss out on some fantastic options and merit aid. Do you want city life or country life? Do you want an enclosed campus or one that’s incorporated into the cityscape? Are you a ski bum? A beach bum? Or do you thrive in a concrete jungle? Do you want a college town? Cornfields? Do you want to get out of your comfort zone here or stay with the familiar? What about travel? Be sure to consider travel distance and expenses. 


Climate —Can you tolerate the cold? Are you a heat/sun seeker, or are you cool with walking around in rain boots for months on end? For many Southern and Western students, going to the Northeast or Midwest can be a shock to the system in the depths of February. Maybe for you, it’s no big deal and getting a dose of seasons is exciting and fun, but if the thought of cold weather sends shivers down your spine, then moving to Boston or Chicago or Maine might not appeal to you. And if imaging yourself in the heat makes you break out in a sweat, you might want to avoid south Texas or Louisiana. 


Potential Major — If you don’t know what you want to major in, don’t worry. You have plenty of time to figure that out, and it actually frees you up a bit. If you do think you know what you want to study, research some schools that might be strong in your focus. Maybe touch base with a professor or two. Make sure the school offers other options in case you do like so many other college students and change your mind.


Your Stats — Where do your grades and test scores fit in? Are they right there in the middle? I like my students to be well above the 50% for most of the colleges they’re applying to.


STEP 4: Find Your Surefire Safety Schools

Make sure you have at least one SureFire Safety School. This is the most important school on your list. A SureFire Safety School is a school where your stats, scores, and grades qualify you for automatic or direct admissions AND where you would like to go AND they are a financial safety. Any school that uses holistic admissions is not a SureFire Safety unless you’ve already been admitted. I think kids should apply to at least a couple of schools with rolling admissions early on so they can have that safety out of the way. You must LOVE your safety. Research it, make sure it’s a financial fit, and imagine yourself there.


STEP 5: Add Some Likely/Match/Target/Reach Schools

These schools are colleges where your test scores and grades are above 50th percentile range, they use holistic application review, and their admissions rate is above 25%. Once you see that you fit the academic profile of these schools, make sure they fit what you’re looking for in a college. Apply to a few that you’ve researched that are a good fit for you and where you have a strong chance of getting accepted.


STEP 6: Wildcard Lottery Schools

Lottery schools are highly selective for everyone — no matter how shiny and sparkly and beautiful your application is. This group of schools also includes schools where you’re in the lower half of their stats. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply. If a school feels right for you, go for it.


In the end, the college list is all about you and what you want and need for the next four years. Leave behind the idea of a dream school. Instead, focus on Dream You. You are the dream you see when you imagine yourself on a college campus and you are going to take that dream with you wherever you go. So, spend some time just daydreaming about Dream You and what and how you see yourself on campus. What are you doing on a Wednesday night or a Saturday afternoon? What does the campus in your imagination look like? And how do you see yourself interacting with it? Figure out who you are and then find the many schools where you — the real you — fit into their shape, making sure to give yourself some space to grow and expand. Then, build your list with intention and mindfulness about what is best for you and your family.  


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Ready to go to college? Check out this college packing list and go prepared to college. Everything you need to know about college preparation is ini this blog post. College Scoops - College Trips Made Easy #colleges #university #collegetrips #applytouniversity #application #admission #collegeadmission #collegescoops #podcast #collegetips #planning College Prep: Creating Your College List

Carolyn Allison Caplan is a lifelong reader (think flashlight- under-the-covers-as-a-child reader), and an admitted all-things education and college admissions junkie. She has a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Masters in Liberal Arts (MLA) with a concentration in English from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Additionally, Carolyn has recently completed the UCLA College Counseling certificate, and is a member of HECA, IECA, NACG, and TACAC. She estimates that in the last three years she has read over 2000 Reddit kid essays, and chatted with over 25,000 kids from A2C. You can find out more about Carolyn at AdmissionsMom.