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Developing Your College List

Summer for rising seniors is filled with college “stuff”: college visits, college list-making and college applications.  While it is ideal for students to visit schools in person to get that “gut feeling” about fit, for most families it is challenging or impossible to visit every school students are considering.  Even if students can visit in person, schools often start to blend together, as they profess to offer the same “great” things.  So how do students know what schools to put on their lists?  

It is easy to let friends, family and the media lure students towards certain colleges when putting together their list, but I try to help students determine what schools are likely to be the best fits for their needs.  Students should be asking the questions: What is the school going to do for me and my future? What type of environment do I need to be successful (and happy)?

Consider the following factors when researching a school: Academic, Financial, Social and Physical Fit.  Here are some points in each category to consider (rate each school from 1-10 on the following):

Academic Fit:

Academic Environment: Are the students competing with one another for grades, or do students collaborate and help each other succeed?  In which environment will I thrive? Will I be a big fish in a little pond, or the opposite? Is that OK?  The best way to find out is to ask current students.  However, the Fiske Guide to Colleges is a great resource to get a glimpse of the academic environment.

Access to Teachers:  Ask current students.  If you don’t know any, try College Prowler (Niche) or Unigo, but take the reviews with a grain of salt.  Students with extreme opinions about their college are usually the ones contributing to the discussions.  You can also check out the General Information tab (for a specific college) in College Navigator to see the number of full-time, part-time and graduate assistants teaching (full-time means they will be on campus more!)  Do you do best in an environment where teachers know you and encourage you?  Or are you OK being rather anonymous?

Your major and how strong is the program: You can use US News & World Report’s ranking of college programs as a start of schools to consider. Then check the college’s website for breadth, depth and types of courses offered in the program. Use College Navigator to see how many students graduated with that major in the past year, and ask the college about job placement and graduate school placement rates.  

Class sizes: Find this on the college website or College Data, under the Academics tab, which lists the percent of classes with certain sizes.

Internship & Research opportunities: Search the college website and ask colleges for the percent of students doing research or internships, how early they can participate, and what support is provided in finding these opportunities.

Job placement outcomes: Often hard to find on a college’s website, but a good question to ask the admissions office or an undergraduate advisor.  College Results Online lists average salary for graduates 10 years post graduation.  Nerd Wallet lets you compare colleges’ employment rates, often by major (when reported by the college).

How do I compare to current students? Use College Data (check the admission’s tab) and the college’s website.   Compare your GPA and test scores with current students to see if you are a competitive applicant.  The more selective the school, the higher your test scores and GPA should be compared to the average in order to feel good about your admission chances.  

Financial Fit:

Your net price vs. your budget: Determine your total cost for one year, including tuition & fees, room & board, transportation and miscellaneous costs, minus expected or offered scholarships and aid.  Google “X College Net Price Calculator” for a link to a resource that calculates your estimated cost at that school. If you have already received an offer from a college, ask what EFC (Expected Family Contribution) they are using to calculate aid if it isn’t listed on your award statement. Compare your Net Price to your budget.  Keep in mind that a good rule of thumb for loan limits is to borrow no more than your expected first year salary.

4 & 6-year graduation rates:  Most college graduation rates listed are for 6 years.  Make sure you know what the 4-year graduation rate is. The national average is 33% for public colleges and universities and 53% for private, non-profit colleges and universities.  Your cost of college goes up considerably if you do not graduate in 4 years.

Social Fit:

Most of this category can be determined from a campus visit, and asking good questions of your tour guide, admissions officer, and students you meet on campus while visiting.

Are your “people” there? This is that “gut feeling”.

Diversity fit (can include all categories of diversity).  College websites usually list percentages of ethnic groups on campus, the number of international students, and the number of students receiving Pell grants and other financial aid (socioeconomic diversity).  College Prowler (Niche) or Unigo are also good resources to hear how real students feel about the amount of diversity on campus.

Are there activities available that you enjoy and to help you acclimate as a freshman? Check out the “Student Life” section of the college’s website, and ask admissions staff about freshmen programming, weekend programming and residential life activities.

For athletes and artists, are you able to pursue your passions here? Athletes and artists need to start conversations with their respective departments early on in the college process to determine the likelihood of being recruited or accepted into special programs.

Places where you will be comfortable. This could be clubs, a specific living/learning community or dorm, or cultural center. It’s a good idea to identify five resources/people on campus to help you acclimate, such as residence assistants, mentors, big brothers or sisters if you are considering joining the Greek system, academic advisors, academic tutoring services, learning disability services (if needed), and the counseling center.  

Party scene/weekend activities:  Ask current students or use College Prowler (Niche) or Unigo. Does it sound like you could find your social scene?  

Campus safety. This is a big one.  Check out this Binge Drinking and Sexual Assault article for resources and questions to ask colleges.

What is the retention rate (% of students that return after freshman year)? This is an indicator of student fit and happiness (along with affordability), and measures how many students return after freshman year. Try College Scorecard or College Results.

Physical Fit:

How does the campus feel to you?  For this, visiting is key.  Do an overnight if possible, and sit in on a class. Does it have the access you want?  Is it in or near a big city or next to a college town?  Do I feel comfortable there? What is transportation around the campus and to nearby towns/city.

Geographical location vs. home: Consider how important this is to you. Is it a plane ride or long drive away? How often will you be able to travel home?

Dorms and food: If you have special dietary needs, do they offer alternatives? Ask current students or use College Prowler (Niche) or Unigo.

Exercise and outdoor options: Most colleges are spending money on student athletic centers these days, and tout them on their tours.  If not, ask colleges about this and their outdoor recreation programming.


Hopefully once you have considered these characteristics and listed your ratings, a number of colleges will rise to the top and a list will emerge.  The number of schools on a student’s list will vary, but usually includes 5-12 schools.  Make sure your list has at least two colleges or universities where your admission chances are highly likely, and where you would be happy to attend.

*I highly recommend that students visit a college at least once before accepting an enrollment offer, even if they choose to wait until after they are admitted for their first visit.


Kristen Miller, owner of College Bound & Ready, is based in Portland, Oregon. She became a College Consultant after volunteering at her local public high school as an ASPIRE mentor. She was often paired with first generation students who didn’t feel they had the same opportunities or support as their peers. Helping these students find schools and scholarships to achieve their dream of attending and affording college was extremely rewarding. She continues to volunteer as an ASPIRE mentor at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon.

As a College Consultant, Kristen often uses her skills from years of experience in advertising, along with her finance and marketing degree from the University of Oregon. Choosing to go and where to go to college is likely one of the biggest decisions and investments parents and their student will make. She recognizes that not only do colleges need to be a good academic, social, and emotional fit, but families also need to consider the cost over the entire college experience and how that cost will be paid. Once good-fit colleges are found, Kristen helps students market themselves to those colleges, increasing the odds of a great and reciprocal match.

Kristen received her Independent Educational Consultant Certificate from UC Irvine, and is a member of NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counseling). She is also a member of HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association) and PACCC (Portland Area College Counselors Consortium). She continues to be a “student of colleges,” visiting 15-20 colleges a year, and keeping up-to-date on college offerings and programs

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