College Help: Narrowing Your List

If you are a soon-to-be-senior planning on applying to colleges, you’ve hopefully been doing some research by now. (If you haven’t started your college search, check out this post:

That means that you probably have a long list of colleges that sound intriguing, or maybe you just a have a bunch of names floating around in your head. Either way, you probably need help narrowing your list to a manageable number—5 to 10 colleges that you want to apply to. Here are some tips to get you there:

  • If you’re the organized type, you could try making a comparison table. Fill in each college, and then each major category that you care about: size, location, strong majors, athletics, social life, financial aid…whatever you want. Then use the table to compare the colleges you’re looking at. You could also just do a simple table of pros and cons for each college.

  • If you are able, try to visit some of the colleges you’re interested in! Visiting helped me; I was really interested in two particular colleges, but after visiting them, I realized they weren’t actually what I wanted. If you can visit, it is the best way to get the real “feel” of a college.


  • If you can’t visit the actual college, there are lots of other ways to get information. College fairs can be a good way to talk to college reps—just remember that fairs can be very busy, and you may have to wait in line to talk to someone. The Colleges That Change Lives Fair is on July 30th in Bellevue, and the huge NACAC Fall Fair is in November. If you don’t want to brave the crowds, most colleges often welcome emails from students. Check college websites to request info.

Students' Guide to Colleges

  • You can also try to get the feel of a college using in-depth college guides. While Princeton Review’s The Best 373 Colleges and the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2009 are helpful, I consider them to be better for those just starting their research. For more in-depth info, try The Insiders’ Guide to the Colleges (similar to Princeton Review or Fiske, but with a different viewpoint) or Students’ Guide to the Colleges (fewer colleges listed, but great reviews from actual students).

The Best 373 Colleges

  • As you zero in on your favorite colleges, keep in mind their selectivity. It is widely believed that your final list should include equal numbers of three types of colleges: safety, match, and reach. Safety schools are the ones you are 99% sure you would get in to; match are those you would probably get in to; and reach are those you might not get in to, but you want to try anyway. Use guidebooks and websites like the College Board to compare your stats (GPA, test scores, class rank, etc.) with schools’ averages to figure out what sort of chance you have. In your final list, try to have mostly safety and match schools and a couple of reach schools. Remember, they should all still be schools you would want to go to! If you would be unhappy going there, you probably shouldn’t apply.  

Hopefully these resources will help you narrow your list so you can start those college apps early! Check back later for more college help posts on the various parts of the Common Application.

Post by Callan, teen blogger

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