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A Step-By-Step Recipe for Making That Perfect College List

Student Life

July 27, 2023

Applying to college can sound a lot like baking: one wrong move, and it feels like everything will go wrong. We put out all the ingredients in front of us—all the factors we need to consider—and suddenly, the kitchen counter of your life becomes a sticky mess. Needless to say, choosing the right schools to apply to is daunting, and there is no perfect recipe like there is for a delectable treat.

But, fear not, this chef has some pro tips for you to make that college list taste just right. If you are struggling to figure out where to apply, follow the steps below to curate your personalized list of schools to apply to.

Step 1: Start Early

Most college applicants and bakers will agree about one thing—time is your best friend! Researching colleges is an involved process, and the whole thing turns out way better when you give yourself the time to consider what characteristics of a school are important to you. And often, you realize which factors matter the most the more you sit with yourself and the choices in front of you.

A helpful tip: aim to have your list finalized by the time most of your applications open. For example, many application cycles for American universities start in August, so those applying can aim to have their lists done by the end of July. Make sure you start well before then (perhaps a month or two) in order to sit down at the computer and look up any and every school that piques your interest. To make a long story short, make sure you give that list enough time to bake in the oven!

Step 2: Start Out with a Big Bowl

This list will affect the next few years of your life—so start out big! Whether it's on a piece of paper or a Google Doc, write down any college you think you would be remotely interested in applying to. These can include dream schools, your parents' alma maters, even schools you simply know the name of.

Nothing is off limits at this point in the process. You can ask peers where they are currently applying and even consult older siblings and parents. It also might be worth it to check out some YouTube videos. Many college students describe their journey through the college application process and make "Day in the Life" videos at their universities. YouTube Creator Domonique Cynthia even creates college student interviews based on Vogue's "73 Questions" series!

Step 3: Gather Your Academic Ingredients

The central purpose of college is education. So, it is extremely important that you apply to schools that have academic programs that suit you. First, consider your academic interests.

What subjects interested you most in school? What activities make you forget about time? Are you interested in any specific career? After you consider your answers, search for schools that are known for or are ranked well in your areas of interest. (A good source for finding college rankings in US News and World Report).

And if you are not sure what exactly you want to do yet, explore schools that give you the freedom to find your passions. For example, some schools like Amherst College and Brown University have open curriculums that do not have any general education requirements and allow students to take any classes they want as long as they meet their major requirements.

The best sources for exploring academic programs will be the college websites themselves. Each university will have an official website with the majors they offer. Schools within the college will more often than not have their own websites, as well.

There, you might find special programs offered for your specific major. For example, many universities have options for studying abroad and taking classes in different countries. If exploring the world during college is a big priority for you, make sure that you explore those programs as well.

Step 4: Measure Out the Costs

College is becoming more expensive every year. Now, one of the major factors that every applicant must consider is whether or not the colleges they are applying to are affordable. Consult whoever is in charge of paying your tuition as you conduct your research.

Colleges will most likely have their average yearly tuition listed on their website, which can give you a good sense of how much you will have to pay. However, you must also remember that there are options for financial aid if you are trying to apply to a more expensive college. Several schools and foundations offer scholarships (both merit-based and need-based), and several countries provide federal student aid. Also, do not forget that there might be application fees. At the end of the day, you must consider whether applying to a certain school is worth it financially for you. This can help you start narrowing down your list.

Step 5: Don't Forget A Cup of Campus Life

Going to college is just as much about the environment as it is about learning. Campus life is a crucial component in the college experience, whether you live on campus or not. Some main factors to consider include location, size, community, and extracurriculars.

Location and size refers to the physical environment of the campus. Do you prefer to live in a city? Do you like open campuses, like NYU, or closed campuses, like Boston College? Can you withstand cold weather, or do you want to go to school by a beach? The environment you surround yourself with will be crucial to your well-being, so carefully consider what you value the most. Even if you cannot visit the campus in person, the college might have virtual tours on their website.

Community and extracurriculars refer to the social life of a campus, which can encompass a wide variety of activities. Many college websites have a "Campus Life" tab on their websites, so that is a good place to start. You can find what sports are offered and a list of the college's student organizations. (Pro tip: try seeing if any of the student organizations you are interested in have active Instagram pages or websites!). Other factors that many applicants might consider are school spirit, Greek life, and diversity. This is another area of interest where checking out "Day in the Life" videos on YouTube could be helpful. Just remember that every student's experience is subjective, so take a grain of salt when watching or reading student reviews!

Step 6: Make Sure To Give it a Good Mix (of Schools)

Look, acceptance rates are not everything. Whether a school is considered "easy" or "difficult" to get into should not affect whether you apply. However, as admissions processes get more and more difficult every year, it's important to have a good variety of schools on your list.

Usually, applicants divide their college lists into "reach," "target," and "safety" schools. Reach schools refer to the universities that you think you have a lower chance of being accepted to, while target schools refer to the ones you think you have a good shot at getting into. Safety schools are the colleges you think you will almost definitely get into. It is important to have an even distribution of colleges; more often than not, applicants will have more target and safety schools on their lists than reach schools.

Step 7: Give it a Taste—and Be Ready to Adjust

After you let your college list sit for a second (or cook, if you will), it's important to start narrowing down your list. There is no "right" number of schools to have. One important factor that can be overlooked is how much time it will take you to fill out your applications.

Even if you like all the schools on your list, you might not have enough time to apply to them. At this point, you will have to use your best judgment to know what to add and what to get rid of. Make your list suit your individual taste!

A Final Thought...

As you go through this process, remember that it is normal to be stressed, confused, or both; contemplating your future is scary and intimidating. Take comfort in the fact that thousands of others are feeling the exact same things you are, and try to rely on these steps when you feel overwhelmed. Following these steps will lead you to a personalized college list that can help you take a step in the right direction. My final pro tip: approach this list—and the rest of the application process—with a dash of optimism and an extra pinch of excitement for the future.

Nikita Roy

Writer since Jun, 2023 · 2 published articles

Nikita is a college student in Washington, D.C. When she is not writing, Nikita is playing the piano, reading books, and hanging out with friends. She is also a big foodie and is constantly exploring new restaurants in D.C.