Building Your College List

College Advising

You can use all sorts of lists to decide where to go to college: ideas from friends and family, mailings from colleges you’ve heard of, or never heard of, athletic teams you root for, etc. 

You can think you’d like a school with fraternities and sororities or somewhere close to home or small or big, in a city, suburb, or rural setting, a school with an academic or athletic reputation or ranking. And on and on.

College searches can be stressful because there are many colleges and a lot of information that can be overwhelming. To help with this, break down the process into several steps. Give yourself (and your parents!) time to reflect. You will soon realize that there are numerous highly regarded colleges where you will be successful, enjoy learning, and thrive. 

Before you begin randomly making a list of colleges you’re interested in, realize this:

All college searches should start with knowing yourself and beginning to think of yourself as a college student. 

Self-reflection questions to build your best-fit college list

Additional questions will come to you as you do your research, but here are a few to help you get started on deciding what colleges are right for you.

  • Do you participate in discussions?
  • Do you prefer “real life” learning over being in a classroom?
  • How are you at taking notes?
  • Are you someone who cares about lots of social issues?
  • Do you have a particular career in mind?
  • Do you think that college is the time to explore new subjects?
  • Do you like to write?
  • Are you a self-starter, motivated without a lot of structure and deadlines?
  • Do you want professors to know your name?  
  • Do you know why you are going to college (e.g., to learn, meet new people, prepare for a career, become independent, help others, have fun, and so on!)? 

Once you’ve done that analysis, you will discover the qualities of colleges that suit you best, and you’ll be ready to find the one that fits you! You’ll know what you are looking for and be able to explore a variety of schools by considering a combination of size, academic quality, personality, social life, cost, location, etc. You’ll have a good idea of what are your “must-haves,” “would be nice,” and “don’t cares” as you identify schools that are right for you. 

Cost of College

Along the way, you will be investigating college affordability. Tackle it head-on, discuss costs with your parents. Do not conclude that you will or will not receive financial aid or merit awards without using financial aid calculators, learning the lingo (EFC, FAFSA, PROFILE, work-study, etc.), and/or talking with a college affordability expert. You may be surprised at the options you discover after discussing the issues with a financial aid advisor.

NOW build your college list!  

Now that you know what qualities and learning environment are essential to you and what the affordability options are, you can build your college list. Here are ways to become familiar with the colleges of choice.

  • Talk with your school counselor 
  • Attend virtual college nights (or visit campuses when campuses reopen)
  • Consider meeting with an Independent Educational Consultant 
  • Use online college searches (,,  
  • Use published books/online resources (e.g., Fiske Guide, Colleges That Change Lives, College Finder, Looking Beyond the Ivy League)
  • When friends, family, teachers, and coaches suggest colleges for you, ask them why they think it would be a good fit for you or if they have recent experience with the strengths of that particular college. (One person’s perfect school is not necessarily your perfect fit!)  
  • Spend time on individual college’s websites – go beyond the admissions links. Read about student life (clubs, athletics, housing) AND academics (majors, minors, courses, study abroad). Check out the student news and events.
  • Colleges may look similar, but if you make notes as you visit their sites, you will notice differences    

Remember, you are not merely looking for “good colleges.” Instead, you are looking for excellent colleges for you

Resource: College Comparison Template

As you research colleges, use this worksheet to keep track of schools you’re interested in and compare the characteristics of each college based on your wish list.

Everyone’s college journey is unique, just like you. With all the options and constant changes in the college application process, you may find yourself overwhelmed. We’re here to help you in this next stage of early professionalism! Let us be your guide to find your best-fit college.