Building your college list strategically

Building a balanced college list has always been a key component to the college application process. Why? Because when you strategize your college list, you apply knowing you have college options that you’ll not only get admitted to, but also enjoy actually attending. You also can prioritize your time and apply to the right amount of colleges without getting flooded with the amount of work each application can take.

Online college application systems, such as the Common Application, make it easier than ever to apply to multiple colleges at one time. But remember, your goal is to attend ONE. So why waste time and water down the college applications you actually care about, by throwing out applications for the sake of it? Not only are you wasting time by applying to upwards of 20 applications, for example, but you’re increasing the chances that you’ll make a mistake, miss a deadline and reduce the amount of time you can spend on the ones you really care about. We are looking for quality not quantity.

Building your college list in a smart, well-researched, strategic way, will not only help you with organization and getting through applications seamlessly, but may also increase your chances of getting in. Why? Because you’re applying to colleges you know really well, which means your college essays will look stronger, you’ll have time to connect with a regional admissions counselor for that university and you’ll be able to balance your deadlines and submit quality applications.

With colleges going test optional for the Class of 2021 and students not being able to potentially have an ACT/SAT score, it is more important than ever to research the fit of a university and take advantage of all the essay spaces on a college application to share your narrative and also show why your strengths are a great match for the college’s strengths. It is also important to know the average academic profile of former admitted students, to gain a sense of where you land.

Where do you begin?

One of the biggest factors in an admission decision are your grades and strength in curriculum (AKA the advanced classes you take that’s offered at your high school). So knowing where you are academically compared to the former students admitted to the university is still important. Look up freshman admission profiles at the college you’re interested and see average GPAs and the selectivity of the college to see where you land. Are you in the ball park?

TIP: Keep in mind, if you had a semester where your grades dipped due to outside factors (COVID-19, family issue, etc.) there are spaces on your application to share the circumstances and the colleges WILL take that into consideration. So if your GPA is skewed for a real reason out of your control, make sure you share that.

Apply to around 5 – 10 colleges on average

  • 2-3 likely colleges (colleges you’re well above the academic profile and admitting more students)
  • 2-3 target colleges (you’re within the averages)
  • 2-3 reach colleges (you’re either below the averages or it is a college that’s accepting less than 10-15% of their applicants)

Apply to colleges that check all your boxes in the following categories


  • Has the major/majors you’re interested in
  • Provides the right learning style (large lecture hall, small discussion based, average classroom size, academic support, etc.)
  • Provides any additional programs important to you (honors program, etc.)


  • School culture fits your interests (religious groups, clubs/organizations)
  • Vibe of campus fits (liberal, conservative, outdoorsy, etc.)


  • Local community offers things for you to do and peaks your interests (city, more secluded, local art fairs, access to museums, etc.)
  • Campus community fits your needs (size, location, etc.)

Check out collegexpress for lists regarding specific interests!

Get to know your regional admission counselor and attend a virtual college visit or college fair

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This is SUCH a huge component that most students skip. Typically every college and university have a regional admission counselor that works in your area and their sole purpose is to help you get to know the university and it’s campus culture and help answer any admission questions.

These counselors can give you tips like if you’re applying to a program within a college that may be more selective, or how to work your essays so they’re stronger. Do NOT be shy and get to know them! Oftentimes these admission counselors can be one of the first ones to read your college application and help advocate for you. A simple Google search or call to the college will help you get connected. Or ask your high school counselor!

By attending an admission event or visit you’ll be able to get to know the college better and see if you’d like to ultimately apply.

Consider college cost in your search

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There is NO point in getting excited about a college, applying and getting admitted only to find out that it will be astronomical to pay for it.

Every college and university has a Net Price Calculator. Use those to get a rough estimate of how much a college will cost. For example, an out of state or private college, may be able to offer more money than a local state school. The calculators can help you see what a university will cost for your family and your specific financial situation.

Know if you will need more merit based aid or need based aid. Use the Expected Family Contribution calculator to get an idea what colleges will expect your family to pay. If you know you are looking for more merit based aid rather than need, you’ll be able to ask colleges and research schools that will offer you more money.

Lastly, you can use the College Navigator and research colleges and see up-to-date information on average scholarship/loan amounts they gave students and the average cost of attendance to get a general idea.

Take the time to research and apply to colleges that make sense for YOU!

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Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

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