What Great College Lists Have In Common

What’s your biggest fear as you embark on the college search? If you are like the majority of college-bound students and parents, it’s either the fear of not being accepted to any schools you like or not getting the necessary financial aid to make those choices affordable.

These are completely understandable concerns. After all, the media spends a lot of time reporting on where students aren’t accepted (Breaking News! Stanford Rejects 95%!) and the rising cost of higher ed. But fear shouldn’t drive your college search. It’s an exciting time, after all!

There is a saying that the best defense is a good offense, and in the case of college admissions that offense is clear: build a great application list. By spending time crafting a list that meets some basic criteria, you will ensure that you’ll have better options and better outcomes.

In generations past, many people applied to colleges based on reputation, waited to learn where they were accepted, and then did their ‘real’ research. This is a bad strategy nowadays, when admissions is more competitive and colleges strive to understand which applicants are serious about attending their school. Smart applicants do a lot of research before they decide where to apply. They’re proactive.

At Tractus Insight, the company I founded after a decade as a professional college counselor, we develop innovative technology to improve the way people search for colleges and build their lists. We’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the way that professional counselors help students craft application lists and the criteria they use to determine whether a list is strong or if it needs more attention. There are 5 qualities that the best lists have in common; understanding these list basics will help you craft a great list!

  1. Every school is a fit. Each school on the list should meet your academic, social, and financial priorities. An acceptance letter is just the beginning. Don’t be tempted to include any schools on your list that aren’t places you can really see yourself thriving.
  2. The list is balanced. One important way to balance your list is to include a mix of likely, target, and reach schools. But you should aim to balance the list in other ways as well. Are your test scores a bit low for the types of schools you like? Then be sure to include some test optional schools. Are you hoping for financial aid and looking mainly at public schools? Consider adding a private school that may have more money to give out. Within your comfort zone? Consider adding schools that are a bit farther or closer to home than the rest of the list, just in case you feel differently by the time you make the actual decision. In short, diversify!
  3. You like every school. This one may seem too obvious to even include, but it’s one rule that many people overlook. Here’s the test: Close your eyes, pick one school on your list, and imagine it’s the ONLY school where you’re accepted. Are you happy with that option? If you are, great! If you’re not, replace it with a school you truly like! Repeat the process until all the schools on your list are ones you like. Parents, take particular note on this one. Don’t force your child to apply to a school where they won’t be happy (even if it’s your beloved alma mater!). It’s just not worth it.
  4. It’s just the right size. Gone are the days when students can put 1 or 2 colleges on their application list. Today, a list that’s too small can put you at risk for not having enough options. And on the flipside, individual college applications have become extremely complex, so if your list is too big you may not be able to devote enough attention to each one. 5-10 colleges is a good range to shoot for.
  5. You meet all the requirements. Each college sets slightly different admissions requirements, and although figuring out what they want gets tedious, it’s your job to know. Details like the word limits for the essays, the number of recommendations to include, which tests are required, and the admissions deadlines are critical to understand. These details matter a lot to the admissions teams, and understanding that you need to follow the directions is a good way to stand out.

The college search is an exciting and sometimes nerve-wracking experience. Check in with these 5 list basics throughout your search and keep your focus on finding the right schools for you. It’s the best way to move away from those worst-case-scenarios and toward a bright future. You got this!

Lori McGlone is the CEO and Co-Founder of Tractus Insight, a college search tool that helps students and families discover great colleges and build strong application lists. Insight was awarded a grant funded by the Gates Foundation and College Summit, and was showcased at a White House event in January. To learn more or start a free trial, visit TractusInsight.com. Lori can be reached at lori@tractusinsight.com


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