College Application Season is Coming, Here's How to Create Your College List

Student Life

July 04, 2021

Summertime, the prelude to another college application season. But before you create your application accounts or begin drafting your personal statement, one thing needs to be done: you need (at least a general idea or rough draft of) a college list.

Which colleges suit me? Which colleges am I eligible to apply to? Which colleges do I want to attend?

Which colleges should I apply to? If you're asking these questions, then you're reading the right article!

Crafting the Perfect College List

Generally, well-considered college lists consist of 10-15 schools that you plan to apply to. More ambitious students may sometimes choose to bring this range up to 16-20 schools, but this isn't recommended as, when it comes to college applications, quality is much more important than quantity.

For instance, imagine you writing mediocre essays for the 18 schools you're applying to. How will your essays compare to those written by a student who's only applying to 12 schools? Admissions officers read thousands of essays each application season and they can tell the difference right off the bat, so don't rely on your luck and risk losing your chance at receiving the acceptance letter you deserve!

However, having less than 10 schools on your list can also be problematic and risky, so sticking within the 10-15 range should be perfect in order to avoid situating yourself in that awkward state next spring when the results are released.

The following 4 groups of colleges are ones you must have on a perfect college list:

Group 1: Safety Schools

The first finalized section of your college list should be your group of safety schools. These schools should either 1) have a high acceptance rate in relation to the competitiveness of your application or 2) be ones where you have an advantage in applying. Remember, this is the selection of schools where you are 100% sure you are qualified and confident that you will be accepted.

  • High acceptance rate: If you are a top student in your grade and the President of a club, in-state schools will probably fit in this section of your list. Another way to determine which colleges belong in this group is to compare the acceptance rate with that of your target or dream schools. For example, if you plan to apply to the Ivies, top 30 colleges, or top liberal arts colleges, your safety schools should be those with much higher acceptance rates, at around 40-50%. Similarly, if your dream school has an acceptance rate of around 30%, aim to add safety schools that have a 60-70% acceptance rate.
  • Advantage: If you didn’t know already, colleges tend to accept more local students than out-of-state students. The reason is that local students are more likely to attend if they are admitted, proven by statistics. For instance, Californians will have a slight advantage when applying to schools in California or along the west coast compared to students applying from New York. Another advantage that can work in your favor is having a family legacy or experience attending a summer program at the college, so make sure to identify and use any advantages you may have in your favor.

Caveat: Be mindful of yield protection, a practice in which your safety schools may reject or waitlist you because you are overqualified for their school and they believe that you will attend a more prestigious college if accepted. Colleges do this to protect their yield rates, which is the statistic revealing the ratio between the number of students accepted to those enrolled, and a low yield rate will harm the school's ranking.

I suggest having 2-3 safety schools on your list, which will not overload your application but also take the possibility of you being yield protected against into consideration.

Still not sure which safety schools to add? Browse through this list of recommended safety schools to begin your search now!

Group 2: Match Schools

The next set of colleges to add to the list are your match schools, or colleges that you are 70% confident will accept you but with a much lower possibility of being yield protected against than your safety schools. You can refer back to the 2 tips given above to determine which colleges are fit to be your match schools and use colleges' acceptance rates as a source of reference.

I recommend adding 3-4 match schools to your list. Check out this article to learn more about match schools and receive guidance on finding yours.

Group 3: Reach Schools

This is where the list gets exciting––adding your reach schools. Reach schools are the challenging schools with high standards that you have been working towards all your years in high school. Why have you tried so hard to get good grades in all your classes?

Why have your parents encouraged you to apply for leadership roles? Why are you piling your summers with camps and internships?

The answer to these questions is likely: to get into ______. Whatever colleges you filled in the blank with, they are most likely your reach schools.

I suggest having 5-7 reach schools on your list. It may appear like a lot compared to the number of safety and match schools, but keep in mind that reach schools are the ones you're really aiming for and hoping to attend. As long as you think your application is unique and strong, don't hesitate to add colleges that may seem too good for you to be accepted into at this moment, because you never know whether it'll stand out to the admissions officers or not!

Remember, reach schools are not only the Ivies or other top 30 schools. They should be reach schools relative to your application, so don't neglect this section if you are not planning to apply to top colleges.

Group 4: Dream Schools

Though similar to reach schools, I put dream schools in their own category because this is where your Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), or Restrictive Early Action (REA) school(s) belongs.

Each college has its own ED, EA, and REA policies. Some colleges, like the UC schools, do not have any early plans you can apply for. Other colleges, mostly top-tier schools like Stanford and certain Ivies, only have a REA option if you want to apply early. Therefore, it is extremely important to conduct detailed research to first find your most targeted schools, and then understand their early application options to determine which college(s) belong in this category.

The number of dream schools on your college list depends on the number of schools you plan to and can apply to in the early round, which is typically between 1 and 2.

Aspects of a College You Should Consider

Simply knowing the 4 groups of colleges you should have on your college list is not enough to make it perfect. Now, we must work to insert colleges into each of the slots by conducting online research or attending the information sessions of a variety of colleges that cover the following 5 important aspects:

1. Academics

Though some people say choosing a college is like choosing a mate, it is not entirely so. Ultimately, colleges are places of interdisciplinary learning and discovery that are targeted towards furthering and enhancing your education.

Investigate whether the college offers your intended major/concentration and whether the learning environment is one you see yourself thriving in. Factors to consider include the student-faculty ratio, average class size, and study abroad programs.

2. Location

It's likely that you will stay in the city or state where your college is located after graduation, so location is not only important for hyping up your college life but also for finding your future job. Consult your family for this aspect as well, and in the end, choose somewhere you see yourself genuinely enjoying.

This means that if you are for sure a city girl, colleges located in rural areas should probably not be too abundant on your list and only be considered if another aspect of it stands out to you.

3. College Size

From 1,000 to 50,000 students, the sizes of colleges differ significantly. Similar to the research done for the location of a college, understand what type of college you will thrive in. If small class seminars and a close-knit community attract you, look into colleges with a smaller undergrad population.

4. Social Activities

Some colleges prioritize learning groups, wherein students with similar academic interests are paired to do activities with one another more, while others emphasize service and leadership groups within the student body. In addition, some colleges may have strong sports teams or large sorority groups you may want to be a part of. Whatever your preferences, make sure the colleges on your list can satisfy them!

5. Application requirements

Even when you have done enough research and drafted a college list you are proud of, time may be your final competitor. Students remove colleges from their list at the last minute all the time, so don't be surprised to find yourself doing that too. This can be caused by being too ambitious and adding more colleges than you can handle, bad time management throughout the summer and fall, or unexpected challenges that hurtle your way.

To minimize the chance of wasting time spent on half-finished essays you didn't have time to perfect and submit, do some research beforehand to get yourself familiar with the workload you will be dealing with. Some colleges have fairly simple applications with only one reusable personal statement and a short supplemental essay, while others may require multiple long essays as well as a plethora of 50-word short response questions. Therefore, take the load of application requirements into consideration as you perfect your college list.

6. Cost

Most colleges offer need-based or need-blind financial aid packages to their students, but sometimes it's just not enough to support your education for four or more years. Therefore, you should click into the "Financial Aid" tab on colleges' websites (highlighted in the image below) to calculate your financial costs as another statistic that may influence your decision on applying to the college or not. Again, each college has its own tuition fee and financial aid packages. As a reference, here is the financial aid calculator for California State University.

Almost there!

By this time of the year, every rising senior is a shining rockstar! You've made it so far already––writing and submitting your application are the last steps before being admitted and taking that senior trip you've probably been planning since you were a freshman.

Best of luck to all applicants out there, and I hope you will be admitted into your dream school!

Katherine Wang
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Writer since Sep, 2020 · 15 published articles

Katherine is a second-year college student. A storyteller at heart, she adept at journalism, creative writing, and visual arts. Katherine is also loves coffee and sunsets, and she enjoys hiking and cooking in her leisure time.