5 Steps to Creating Your Best College List

When you’re in high school planning what college to attend, all your preparation hinges on the colleges on your list. The better you hone your list to match your needs and wants, the better prepared you’ll be academically, emotionally, and financially. But how do you decide which colleges should be on your list? In this blog article, we’ll discuss just that. You’ll learn how to determine your college return on investment (ROI) and how to determine your odds of acceptance.

It’s estimated that 1/3 of college students change colleges. You’ll learn how to save yourself the hassle, expense, and setback by choosing the best college the first time around.


One of the most vital steps in looking for the right college is research. Learn everything you can about the schools that offer the academic path you’d like to pursue. If you plan to be a college athlete, follow their coaches on social media. Find a few school hashtags and follow them as well. This will give you a glimpse of campus life above and beyond what the school website provides.  


Don’t make your decision solely on research. If possible, visit the school while school is in session. It’s one thing to learn through website and social media, but quite another to experience things in person. You can read more about how to make the most of your college visit here. 

Rank Them


Determine what is most important to you in a college. Obviously, academics will play a major role in this decision. What is a normal course load at each school? Can you sustain the academic model? Is instruction provided in the way you learn best? Now is the time to be honest with yourself about what you can handle and what you can’t. 

How do you compare with your classmates right now? Are you in the top 20%? Average? Are you just getting by or below average? Colleges will rank you based on how you rank against your peers in high school. 


Where is the school’s location? Some colleges are rural, and some are within a city’s downtown area. Think about the lifestyle you’d like to have in college, what you enjoy doing in your spare time, and the culture that goes with rural, suburban, and urban areas. 

Is the school close to home or within driving distance? Would you have to fly to visit home for the holidays? This makes a difference for summer breaks, but also for getting your belongings to and from college.


Do you prefer the bustle of crowds and lots of people to interact with in each class? Or would you prefer smaller class size and more interaction with your professors? 

What’s the housing situation like? Would you be sharing a room with a few others or have a room to yourself? Size of the student body, class size, and housing arrangements can completely change your college experience. Think through what situation would set you up for the most success.


If you want to pursue particular extracurricular activities as part of your college experience and education, make sure the colleges on your list include these things. Consider sports, academic clubs, artistic opportunities, job availability, leadership work, community service, volunteer, and internship opportunities. 


What’s the real cost of attending each school? Include tuition, fees, books, room and board, supplies, equipment, travel, etc. Research what scholarships and grants are available at each school,, and what additional financial aid may be available. What’s the average debt of each school’s graduates? Ask these questions to discover the net cost of each school and where some financial breaks may occur.

Keep It Realistic

As you look through your list of schools you’ve ranked according to your own criteria, be realistic about your odds of making the cut. Find out how many students are typically admitted and what academic profile they typically hold. If your academic record is stronger than most students admitted, you’re likely to get accepted. Similarly, if your academic profile is weaker, it’s a stretch that you’d be admitted to their program. 

If you’re unsure of a school’s acceptance practices, check their admissions website. If you can’t find it, call the school’s admissions office. This information will play a big role in narrowing down your list and making the college choice that is best for you.

Don’t Overwhelm Yourself

There are thousands of schools to choose from. Don’t feel you have to research every single one in order to find the “one perfect match” for your college experience. Odds are there are dozens that can be a great fit for you. If you’re unsure, keep it off your list. Do your research, visit when possible, rank them by your top priorities, and you’ll wind up with a great college choice.