College Applications: How to Craft a School List

Published September 2021

There are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States. Knowing where to start can feel overwhelming. Here is my advice about where to begin!


The US News & World Report rankings receive a lot of attention – perhaps more than they should. Every year, the magazine publishes data, ranking national universities as well as liberal arts colleges and regional universities and regional colleges. These overall rankings do not tell the entire story of a school. The Ivy League schools – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell – come up often among top students about places to apply. However, the Ivy League was created as an athletic conference in the 1950s. These schools are very famous and well-known, but sometimes applicants overly focus on these colleges. A certain type of student puts most of these colleges on their list, and they are very different from each other! Dartmouth is in a rural area and is the smallest of these colleges and has a more traditional college experience; while University of Pennsylvania is urban and has many schools and divisions and is among the most pre-professional of these schools.

There are many wonderful schools outside of the Ivy League as well. Liberal arts colleges are not as popular as they once were with the shift of students towards more career-oriented majors, but they offer a small and intimate environment with small class sizes and more of a close-knit campus atmosphere.

Here are other rankings which are helpful to consider:
Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education

Data from Your High School

In your high school, you work with the college counseling team to submit your applications. Most likely your high school uses a platform to manage your college applications and keep track of your deadlines and requirements. The most popular ones include Naviance, SCOIR, and MAIA Learning. Often high schools also use these systems to track the standardized test scores and grades of students and see how these factors affect college acceptances.

It is very helpful to use the tools provided in the system to evaluate if students who had similar test scores and grades were able to be accepted to certain schools. However, the data points do not tell the whole story – if they were a standout in their extracurricular activities, have legacy connections, or were recruited as an athlete.

However, the data is helpful to get a sense if a school is worth trying for – for instance, one student of mine knew that their high school had a very good relationship with Fordham University, so that almost every student within a certain GPA and test score could be accepted. Another student who was a California resident knew that certain students who had a particular GPA and test score were also very likely to get into Berkeley.

Nevertheless, the data can also be deceiving and it is important to be aware of nuances. When I was a senior at my high school in New Jersey, I did not bother to apply to Princeton since it was extremely rare then that a non-athlete and non-legacy would be admitted from my school, so I knew that I did not have a realistic shot. On the other hand, my high school sent a good number of both athletic recruits and academic admits to University of Pennsylvania, but I was looking for a much smaller college experience. It is good to get a sense of which schools are realistic based on the high school data.

Test Scores

The landscape for test scores has changed quite a lot in the last two years. Due to pandemic, many colleges are currently test optional. Although there were a number of schools that did not require test scores prior to the pandemic, they were not usually the most competitive ones.

With so many colleges changing their test policy to waive the standardized test requirement, many students are aiming for schools that are in a higher tier. Colleges at the top end of the ranking had enormous applicant pools due to this change, while the lower ranked schools did not experience a similar bump in applications. If you are someone who does not perform as well as you would like on standardized tests, this is a huge benefit to not have to submit them. In the 2020-2021 application cycle, submitting without test scores resulted in some pleasant surprises! However, it has created more uncertainty for top students who score very well and even more of an need to really stand out in particular aspects such as activities and leadership.

Some schools deeply care about test scores regardless – last season, Georgetown technically allowed students to not submit test scores but required submission if they were able to take them, and the vast majority of those accepted had test scores – 93 percent of the Early Action admitted students submitted them. This cycle they are requiring the ACT or SAT.

Other schools might be test blind entirely– which means they will not consider any test scores even if they are submitted. For instance, all University of California campuses are banned from using test scores as part of their admission process until at least 2025 due to a court settlement.


This category really helps to narrow down the options. There are some students that really want to stay in their home state – which is totally fine. Maybe they have close family ties and want to be near their friends from high school. However, some students are completely open to the entire country and even international study – and it is important to really narrow down what you are looking for in a school. There has been a trend of Americans looking at cheaper alternatives in places like Canada and the United Kingdom, whose tuition fees are often lower than in the US.

In terms of logistics, it is good to get a sense of what you are comfortable with – for students who go thousands of miles away, it might be very expensive to get home very often. Does it require a plane ride to get to your school? Is it a direct flight? How far is the college from the airport? If flying to your school also requires a several hour car ride, that is something to consider. Do you love being in nature and having access to many outdoor activities? Or do you prefer the hustle and bustle of a city and do not think you will be distracted by all the museums and activities?


Schools greatly range in size. They can be a small college and have fewer than 500 students in a grade or they can be a huge university with thousands of students. One example of a small school is Amherst College – which was slightly bigger than my high school and only has bachelor’s degree students. Usually small colleges are defined as having 5000 students or fewer.

Then there are schools that are on the small-medium size – defined as 5000 to 15,000 students. This seems to be the preference of many of my clients these days. 15,000 or more would be large; and generally over 25,000 would be enormous. University of Massachusetts at Amherst was a few miles away from my college, and as the flagship state university of the state – it has over 30,000 students.

Extremely large universities such as Ohio State and Texas A&M can have 50,000 students or more – usually schools in this category are public. However, New York University is an exception to this rule as the largest private university in the United States with 50,000 students total; more than half of them are undergraduates.

It is important to know that many of these schools list total enrollment – but the number of undergraduates is more relevant as a college applicant. Harvard only has about 5000 to 6000 undergraduates but over 20,000 graduate students – so they outnumber the undergrads greatly.


One special consideration in the US is that many colleges allow students to wait till end of sophomore year or beginning of junior year to declare their major. That gives students time to consider many subjects and narrow it down. On the other hand, countries like England have students decide right away.

It is important to consider your potential major when applying. It is probably ideal to go to a college that has strong offerings in your anticipated major. For instance, the best engineering programs are not in the Ivy League – those students may gravitate towards schools like MIT, Caltech, Georgia Tech, Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, etc. If you truly want a business major and not economics, then only Penn and Cornell offer an undergraduate business major out of the Ivy League.

The bigger universities do not necessarily make it easy to switch between majors at colleges unless you are still in the same division. For instance, University of Pennsylvania has undergraduate divisions in business (Wharton), College of Arts and Sciences, Nursing, and Engineering. How easy it is to transfer between divisions depends on the university. If you attend a University of California campus, it is not a simple or likely process to change majors to another division. However, if you attend a liberal arts college, generally all the majors are within the same school.

Student Life

US universities are unique in the sense that they focus so much on college athletics as part of campus life. Do you want a college that is very passionate about sports and has a lot of turnout at games? Or do you wish to have a “nerdier” atmosphere in which students enjoy board games and play pranks on each other like Chicago or MIT or Rice?

Another thing to consider are sororities and fraternities. Some colleges have banned them from campus, but other schools really emphasize this part of student life. If you have a strong opinion either way, it is good to seek out colleges that fit your preference.

Is it important to you to have a lot of diversity on campus? Check out the profile of enrolled students that is published by the college. If you feel you want to find your people, it may be easier at a larger school or in a city.

Look at the student newspapers and club listings to get a sense of what campus life is like. Do you want a sense of tradition? Certain colleges like Wellesley have a lot of established traditions that students are passionate about like Hooprolling, which includes the winner being thrown into the lake!

Curriculum and Style of Learning

A major reason why I chose Amherst was that there were no core curriculum requirements. Besides choosing a major and fulfilling the department’s requirements, I only was required to take a first-year seminar for freshmen and take eight semesters of a full courseload. I was attracted by the freedom to take so many courses of my own choice – which included geology, French literature, material culture of American homes, and European film. Brown also offers freedom in choosing courses.

If you care a lot about a core revolving around Great Books and humanities, you may consider Columbia or St. John’s.

Do you wish to study abroad? This isn’t as big of a consideration, but it may be helpful if your school offers a lot of options to do so or has partnerships with other programs.

Do you really want a semester system? Many schools offer this option. However, certain colleges like Dartmouth, Chicago and University of California have quarter systems, in which you generally start school later in September and finish in June.

Do you prefer a college that has a more alternative way of assessing performance? Certain schools have options beyond just offering grades. Colorado College allows you to do the G-Track which offers traditional grades, or the Pass-Track which only offers Satisfactory for grades C- and above, Credit for D grades, and NC for failing grades. Brown has students be able to take many classes as Satisfactory/No Credit, does not calculate GPA on the transcript, and also allows students to ask professors for a narrative evaluation. If a student chooses to get a letter grade, they are awarded an A/B/C/No Credit and are not given any plus or minus marks on their transcript.

Categories of Target, Reach and Likely and Overall Number of Schools

Of course students focus a lot on the reach schools that accept few applicants and get a lot of attention. However, it is important to have a few target schools on your list that have a decent shot of taking you and have an acceptance rate of between 30 and 50 percent, as well as a couple likely options that have good odds to accept you such as your state university in which you are significantly above the average test scores of an admitted student and which also takes the majority of applicants. In general, 15-20 schools is on the very high end of a school list, and a more realistic list may usually have around 10-12 options to truly get a sense – so generally 6 reaches, 4 targets and 2 likelies would make a well rounded list.

Early Decision versus Early Action

I do not generally recommend Early Decision unless a student really loves a school and has visited in person – as it is binding if you are admitted. However, if you have a number one choice and your family feels comfortable with it financially, then this can have a huge benefit in the admissions process as acceptance rates are higher. Even if you do not have a clear first choice, Early Action is helpful because you tend to hear back earlier from the school and it may give you the chance to apply to fewer schools overall if you are admitted. This option allows you to hear back earlier but not have to commit if accepted. These Early Decision and Early Action deadlines tend to be in November or earlier so it is best to have your materials ready as early in the fall as possible.

College Visits

College visits can be very informative about seeing whether you could picture yourself as a member of the community. It is also helpful to be on campus when other students are present. With the pandemic, it may be harder to visit colleges. Even if you are not able to go to campus, it is beneficial to do video tours, read review websites like Niche and Unigo and guidebooks such as Fiske Guide to Colleges to get a sense if you can see yourself there.

If you do visit campus, it can be beneficial to schedule a tour and information session. Keep in mind random factors affecting if whether a student likes a school include if they like the tour guide or if the weather was poor that day. I remember not applying to a certain Ivy League college because my family and I sat down for lunch in the cafeteria and a student came over to scold us because she felt we were sitting at her normal table and we were in her way. So that one was taken off the list! However, make an effort to talk to multiple students on campus if possible and walk around the buildings and see how students interact. Do they seem happy? Are they relaxed when going to lunch or to class? What kind of events are advertised on campus? It is helpful to jot down notes after each visit so you can look back at them and remember your thoughts and add the material to school specific essays later.


Deciding on a school list is a major consideration when applying to colleges! By taking the time to really contemplate what is important to you in your college experience, it can make the process smoother in finding the right school for you to make home for the next few years!


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