Building a Balanced College List: The Complete How-to Guide

College application season: A highlight-reel-worthy (and long-awaited) moment in most teenagers’ educational journeys. Despite the thrill of college campus tours and acceptance letters awaiting you, building a college list is no small feat. With high school students juggling borderline unmanageable workloads (i.e., back-to-back extracurricular activities, end-of-semester exams, and resume-boosting volunteer service projects), adding a college decision into the mix could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Choosing a college can be overwhelming, especially with thousands of colleges in the United States alone vying for the attention of high school hopefuls. As a first-year student in the making, you may be wondering: What factors do you need to consider when choosing a college? A lot more goes into the decision process than simply closing your eyes and pointing at a map. It’s a daunting task, but fortunately, there are a plethora of tools available to help you decide.

Gather the necessary tools


Remember, you aren’t alone when choosing your college. There are many tools and branded resources available online, in addition to advisors at your high school, college admissions offices, and in your local community. When utilized wisely, these resources will empower you to make an informed decision.

If you’re unfamiliar with the online tools at your disposal, turn to one of the following resources:


CollegeData offers aspiring college students easy access to their College Chances Calculator, which estimates your chance of admission to more than 2,000 colleges. This calculator collects information from you about your grade point average and test scores, then compares your information with the qualifications of current students at schools that have caught your eye.

College Board


College Board is a non-profit that helps students prepare for the transition to college. Whether it be SAT prep and assistance with the Advanced Placement Program, this is an invaluable resource for any high school senior.

Scholar Matcher

Scholar Matcher is a non-profit that helps low-income college students find schools that provide financial aid and opportunities for students whose family makes less than $50,000 annually. If you are worried about your ability to afford college, this is the site for you.

With these tools in the back of your mind, constructing a college list will be a cinch.

Put together a wish list


What are your must-haves for college? It’s essential to write down your expectations before you start making a list of schools. This way, you will know what you’re looking for before you begin exploring college websites. Having a list of expectations will keep you focused.

Consider what you would like to study in college. When you start to assemble your list, only include colleges that offer your chosen major/program.

What is your ideal location? Do you want to go to college in another state, or do you want to be close enough to home that you could do your laundry at your parents’ house on the weekends? Do you want to attend a big college or have a more intimate campus experience with your fellow lowerclassmen?

In this moment of self-reflection, you’ll also want to ask yourself whether or not you’d like to attend a religious college? Some students feel more comfortable being educated in a faith tradition that they are familiar with. Should that be the case, seek out high-ranking religious institutions that are compatible with your financial limitations and preferred field of study.

As a final line of question, ask yourself the following: Do you want to participate in athletics programs and other extracurricular activities? Have any schools offered you scholarships because you participated in sports or groups in high school? A scholarship shouldn’t always make or break the decision for you, but it’s a plus.

Create a list or spreadsheet


Once you know what you’re looking for in a school, start to make a list of schools that match your criteria. Don’t worry about whether your list has “reasonable” or “affordable” choices. In the beginning, the goal is to get your options down on paper- even the very doubtful maybes.

By the time you start to apply, there should be between 10 and 12 colleges to choose from.

Create a spreadsheet with relevant information, such as location, tuition, programs you are interested in, important application deadlines, and what essays and documents you should include in your application. This spreadsheet will eventually become your checklist for applications when you get to that stage.

Narrow down your options

Take some time to learn more about the schools on your list. The more you learn, the more you can pare down your list to between 10 and 12 options. Explore college websites, schedule appointments with counselors at colleges, and request additional information about admissions.

Remember, don’t wait until the last minute to visit colleges that pique your interest. You want to have time to process each school individually, and a “college road trip” might be overwhelming for some high school hopefuls.

To scale down your college list even further, ask yourself some objective questions about how well you fit the school. Do you have a high enough grade point average to be considered? Are your ACT and SAT scores competitive? Is the tuition affordable for you?

The question of tuition cost can be particularly tricky to answer. You will need to consider the resources you and your family have, how much debt you are willing to take on, and how much financial aid is available to you. You will also need to research student loans and calculate how much you will need to borrow.

Categorize your options


Some colleges are sure to accept you, while others lie within reach with the help of an exceptional application essay. Other institutions, like an Ivy League school, would be a bit of a stretch, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put them on your list if you want to study there. Just know that it will be more challenging to gain admission without glowing ACT/SAT scores and a phenomenal GPA.

When choosing colleges to apply to, pick one to two safety schools that you are confident you could get into, a handful of schools that are likely to admit you, and a few more ambitious, hard-to-reach options. If you like the school and it checks all your boxes, you may as well apply—regardless of the university’s assigned category.

You don’t have to do it alone

Talk to the college counselor at your high school and the admissions counselors at colleges that appear on your top-choice list. These academic experts can make recommendations based on your qualifications, preferences, and chosen course of study. Guidance counselors can also provide you with valuable resources to help you research on your own.

You’ve got this

Be specific. No matter what you’re looking for, there is a school out there that fits you perfectly. That being said, it helps to have more than one top choice. Be adaptable, as your college list will likely change over time. You may end up attending a school that wasn’t even on your original list. That’s the beauty of using all of the tools available to you in your college search.

About Jeanette Iglesias