How to Narrow Down your College List

There are over 7000 universities and colleges in North America - It’s pretty clear that you can’t apply to them all (and I don’t think you’d want to!)


The first step high school students take towards preparing for university is narrowing down a list of colleges they might one day like to attend.

Start this step in Junior year.

You can always make changes to your list and add/remove schools as your interests develop, but having an idea of what kind of schools interest you far in advance will give you an idea how many applications you’ll have to fill out in Senior year.  

How do you narrow down your college list? Get clear on what you really, REALLY want.

It’s critical that you figure out what you want out of college. Not what your parents want, not what your counselor wants, not what your coaches want.

Your dad might want you to attend his alma mater, because he had such a great college experience ‘back in the day’ and wants the same for you. Unfortunately, times have changed and we don’t always want what our parents had.

Some things to consider, when determining what kind of school experience you want:

  1. Location. Do you want to stay close to home, or spread your wings? Could you do both: attend a school too far to visit on weekends, but close enough to drive home for every holiday? Would you consider a move across the country, where going home more than once or twice a year isn’t really an option?

  2. Major. You probably don’t know exactly what you want to major in, but you probably have a general idea. Do some research and brainstorming about any programs you’re interested in, because you will have to make sure the colleges on your list offer these programs (or, better yet - they are known for excellence in that subject area).

  3. Setting. Do you want to be in the middle of a big city, in the suburbs, or in the country? Remember to think about what this means for your housing situation. If you’re in the country, your only option may be to live in dorms, while in the city or suburbs, getting your own apartment (by yourself or with friends) might be possible.

  4. Extracurriculars or Athletics. Are there any particular activities that you’d like to participate in in college? Will you join a varsity sports team? Knowing what you want to do during your time in college is critical - you have to apply to schools that offer those things, after all!

  5. Size of the school. The size of schools (and number of students) varies across institutions - there are many schools that will have roughly the same number of students as your high school, and other schools that are the size of cities! (UCF has more students than the population of the capital of Wyoming!)

  6. Other things you want/need. Interested in a religiously affiliated school? Want a massive gym and track field and olympic-sized swimming pool? Is having a strong career or volunteer centre important to you? These are all things to consider.

Once you’ve gotten clear on what you really desire in a school, it’s time to get clear on something else: your profile.

It might be hard to look critically at your stats if your test scores aren’t as high as you would have liked them, or if your grades dropped a bit. This is one reason why it’s important to start looking at schools in your Junior year (or earlier!).

If you know your dream school requires a 3.9 GPA and a 1400 SAT score, you’ll be more motivated to keep your grades up.

Write down estimates of what your grades will be. Be honest and ambitious, but don’t over exaggerate. Estimate what your class rank will be.

These are estimates, and will likely be a little off, but they will help you to find schools that fall into the ‘safety’, ‘match’, and ‘reach’ schools - which is the next step in making your college list.

A reach school is one that would be difficult for you to get into, but not impossible. Match schools are schools you are likely to be admitted to, based on your stats, and safety schools are those that you would almost certainly be admitted to.

I recommend applying to 1-3 reach, 4 match, and 2 safety schools. Keep in mind, all of these schools should be ones you would be happy to attend and would fit with what you want - the safety schools shouldn’t be a ‘back up plan, in case all else fails’, just the like reach schools shouldn’t be a prestigious top 20 school you’d be miserable at, but would attend just because of the name.

Quick note: Any highly selective schools (<15% acceptance rates) should be considered reach, regardless of if your stats make you qualified. These schools look at more than just grades and scores when offering admission, and even perfect students often don’t get in.

The next step in narrowing down your college list is to find schools that are financially suitable.

Use the calculators on schools sites and the Federal Student Aid site to determine how much you can expect your expenses to be, how much financial aid you can expect from the school, and how much you’ll have to make up in scholarships and loans.

Don’t discount the schools that seem more expensive right off the bat - often those that carry the largest price tag also offer the most in financial aid. If the school your heart is set on is one of these, it doesn’t hurt to call them and see what they can offer.

Using these criteria, you should be able to narrow down the list from the 7000+ schools in North America to about 20 you would be comfortable attending.

Of these, you can select the reach, match and safety schools that you’ll apply to, as you get closer to senior year. Remember - this doesn’t have to be a final draft.

As you move towards the end of your high school career, you’ll probably want to add or remove a few schools, and that’s okay.

Starting early will get you ahead of the crowd, and leave you with lots of time to ponder and ask questions, so congrats!