I have done the process of developing a college list twice: once during high school and once now to find the right college for my post-graduate degree; while it is a rigorous and time-consuming process, it is incredibly helpful. Below is a step-by-step guide on how you can develop a college list and gradually narrow it down to exactly where you'll end up applying!
Step 1: Write it Down
The first thing to do is to identify the basics, like the degree you're interested in, preferences regarding location, culture, etc. Don't worry if you don't have concrete decisions regarding these: you only need a vague idea to begin with, and can eventually eliminate options to find your perfect fit.
When you start making decisions and doing some research on what you like, make sure you create an Excel Sheet, a sheet on sites like Notion, or whatever you're comfortable with, and start arranging your data into categories. Some tentative categories can be the name of the university, courses it offers that interest you, a brief description of these courses, criteria that make you an eligible applicant for the course, tuition fee, scholarship and financial aid opportunities, student life, city life, QS ranking, documents needed for the application, and application deadline.
If you're applying to local or familiar places, you can skip categories like student life. It all depends on what your points of focus are.
Step 2: Assess Your Options
The very first research process would contain anything and everything that interests you. It's now time to start narrowing this down. Start going through the course pages, read about the course structure in more depth, and start eliminating courses that don't align with what you're looking for.
Also, go through other factors that are important to you. For example, is the tuition fee too high with fewer opportunities for financial aid and scholarships? Is the location too far or near home for your liking?
Do you feel like you would be safe in the area where the university is located? How's student life? Do they have clubs and societies that you'd like to be a part of?
What are the placement opportunities like for graduating students? Depending on how important these factors are to you, continue to eliminate courses and universities that don't seem like the right fit for you. Color code your preferences: you can use one color for your top three choices, another one for the next ones on the list, and another one for those that aren't that important and are just backup options for you.
Step 3: Understand Different Perspectives
Make sure you consult someone like your parents, guardian, or school counselor to have another perspective on your decisions in case yours arise from some kind of bias that could cloud your judgment. You can also check in with your classmates and see what they're doing, especially those who want to do a course similar to yours. Feel free to find former or current students on university websites or on LinkedIn and connect with them to get a sense of what it's like!
Information from someone who has been a part of the institution would add to the depth of what you understand from the university website. You can also email departments or specific professors to know more than what's publicly available. If you decide to do this, it's a good idea to create a set of questions you'd like answers to so that you can get exactly what you need from them.
Considering these perspectives, add or remove courses from your list and continue to proceed. Make sure this isn't a one-off thing: get feedback from people you trust regularly regarding your process and choices and keep them in the loop.
Step 4: What's Really Important?
There are universities that will be absolutely perfect for you but are in a location you don't prefer. It's also possible that a university isn't ranked great overall, but has one of the best departments for the course you're interested in and has good resources for job placements. In cases like this, you need to weigh the importance of what's really good for you.
Think of making a compromise regarding the location, or finding something that's equally good for you somewhere you'd prefer more. However, at some point, you will have to make sacrifices for some of your less important preferences. For example, the pandemic was an unpredictable situation for all of us, and in the interest of health and safety, which is of the utmost importance, many students, including myself, stayed closer to home for college instead of going too far.
Similarly, if a university is a great fit for you after all your research, make a smart decision regarding sacrificing your other preferences. Weigh the importance of all the important factors and continue to narrow down your list to a number you're happy with. While most people apply to under 10 universities, feel free to apply to more if you want to! Just keep in mind that some universities have a high application fee, and if these universities are not your priority, then don't waste resources on their applications.
Step 5: Collect Your Documents
Now that you have a list of around 8-15 universities after eliminating other options, it's time to collect your documents and things to submit for the application. Create a timeline for when you'll send in these applications, depending on their application deadlines and your current schedule. Here's a list of documents and information that most universities require (note that there may be differences based on whether you're applying in your country or internationally):
General information: This is just basic personal information such as name, date of birth, name of high school, potential date of graduation, names, and contact of parents and/or guardians, and financial and medical information. This section would also ask for identity verification, for which you can submit a copy of your passport, driver's license, or any other government-verified document that establishes your identity.
Resume/CV: This is a document with your qualifications, background, and experience. You can include internships, places you have volunteered at, personal ventures like blogs or startups, and external certifications like those on Coursera. Make sure this is updated regularly and send in the most recent version. If you don't have a CV and don't know how to make it, there are plenty of templates available online that you can use for guidance!
Statement of purpose: Also known as a cover letter, application essay, or statement of motivation, this is an essay that covers things like why you're applying for this course (and what about the course is appealing to you), what you would bring to the university, how your background ties in with your future aspirations, and more. Universities may have different requirements and word limits regarding what they want you to include in this.
To work smarter and save time, you can write one statement of purpose that covers topics generally asked for in applications and then just modify the same statement of purpose to match the university and application requirements.
Transcripts and certificates: Keep your latest transcripts ready for this section. In case you don't have your final transcript yet, you can submit predicted scores which can be provided to you by your school. In some cases, universities also accept self-predicted scores.
Also, keep other documents handy, like internship letters, certificates of external courses, volunteer work, and more. If you have taken any other standardized tests like SAT, ACT, or English tests like IELTS or TOEFL, have your scores and certificates ready.
Referrals: Universities may ask for contact details of someone like your teacher or principal of your school as people who can be contacted to vouch for you and verify your information. You may also attach reference letters from any internships you do, which would strengthen your argument on why you may be a good fit for the course you're trying to get into and what your skills and abilities are.
Once you have your information and documents ready, start applying! If you break it down this way, it would be less overwhelming with your schedule. Involve other people in your process to help you.
For example, if your parents are free, they can fill in your general information while you work on your resume and collect other documents. If you streamline your entire process of choosing colleges and applying to them efficiently, you'll be able to finish it in no time. All the best!