How To Finalize Your College List

Earlier this year, your child’s life (not to mention your own) turned upside down. . . and it remains unclear when it will completely right itself. And yet, time marches on, and deadlines remain in place, even if pushed back a bit. It was weird to be able to delay paying taxes until July, wasn’t it? Whatever the new normal will look like, and whenever it may actually get here, high school seniors need to start focusing on their college application journey.

One of the first tasks they must complete is to finalize their college list. This year, that is complicated because most seniors will not be able to visit the colleges that will end up on their list. Even those campuses that are “open” for college students (and the list gets shorter every day as colleges revise their re-opening plans) are generally not permitting visitors. While this means continued reliance on online information, the “best practices” for finalizing a college list remain essentially unchanged.

Above all, students need to have a balanced list, of reaches, targets, and likely schools. This includes considerations of academic admissibility and financial feasibility – it is no help to be admitted to a college that is unaffordable.

Your child first needs to determine want they want in a college. Hopefully, your child started to research colleges over the summer and has already attended virtual information sessions, tours and online admissions Q & A forums. By this time, your child should have a general understanding of the type of college they like and want to attend – a large research university, a small liberal arts college, an urban school, a rural school, or something in between.

After your child has concluded what they want in a college, they should determine what each college wants from the students it admits. Knowing this information is critical for your child to determine whether the college is a reach, target or likely school. College websites typically list profile information about their incoming First Year class – average GPA, test scores and acceptance rates, as well as demographic information about the class. Students (or parents) can also consult the Common Data Set (https://commondataset.org) to get information about colleges’ acceptance rates. Importantly, this year college admissions is going to look different – most colleges are test optional, many students do not have spring 2020 grades and many extracurricular activities were curtailed due to the pandemic. Still, data can help guide your student in categorizing colleges and assessing the likelihood of their acceptance to them.

Once your child has sorted out the type of college they want to attend, and has categorized colleges into reaches, targets and likely, they can start to fine-tune the list.  Now is the time for the deep dive into course catalogues (available online!) and looking at both general education and major-specific requirements. Most colleges will have an English department, but some may require only eight courses to fulfil a major, while others may require upwards of ten to twelve, leaving less time for electives. Students should also consider what they want in terms of campus culture . . . there are small colleges with an active Greek life and large research universities with none. . .  the combinations are endless, but important. No matter how wonderful the course offerings, if your child does not feel comfortable at college they will not thrive. Another consideration that may be especially relevant in the Covid-19 era is location – are you comfortable with air travel, for example; that has a whole new meaning today.

When finalizing the list, conventional wisdom has been to apply to eight to ten colleges – typically, three reaches, three targets, three likely and one extra in whichever category your child prefers. This year, due to all the uncertainty in college admissions, many college counselors recommend expanding the list a little, to add in an extra target and maybe even an extra reach, but definitely no more than twelve colleges in total.