How to Make a College List

UCPG 72017-08-03T03:08:49+00:00

In the previous chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, we talked about all of the discretionary things that your student can do to make their application even stronger. In addition to grades and test scores, the SAT Subject Tests, college interviews, extracurricular activities, and the mid-year update are all taken into consideration by admissions officers when reviewing your student’s application.

In this chapter, we’ll walk through our three step process to help you and your student decide on which colleges to apply for. During this process, we’ll give examples of what factors to consider, where to find important information and how best to build your college list to make the most of your time and money.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this chapter:

SAT Subject Tests

The SAT Subject Tests are one-hour tests that focus on specific subjects like chemistry or English and give your student a chance to demonstrate deeper knowledge and mastery of particular subjects.

Most colleges don’t require these tests as part of your student’s application, but most will recommend it as a supplement. Make sure to look up the testing requirements for any school your student is applying for to determine whether they are required to take it.

Taking the SAT Subject Tests is a great way for your student to prove their proficiency in certain subjects and show their commitment to success. We recommend identifying two or three subjects that your student thinks they can excel in and taking the time to study for an take these exams. There is a total of 20 subjects to choose from.

How to Prepare for the SAT Subject Tests

While the Subject Tests aren’t required like the SAT, your student should take these tests just as seriously. Work with your student to set up a study plan to make sure they’re prepared for test day.

  • Find study materials. The Subject Tests are designed to mirror material that your student would learn in their classroom. However, it’s possible that they may not have covered a specific topic before their test date. By doing practice questions and practice exams, your student will get an idea of the type of questions and subjects that will be covered.
  • Develop a study plan, and stick to it! Just like with the SAT, developing a scheduled study plan will help keep your student on track and make sure they’re confident come test day. Even just setting aside 20 minutes a day to study new material or do a few practice questions will help set them up for success.
  • Focus on exam topics your student is least familiar with. Class textbooks are a great way to get a handle on subjects that haven’t been covered in class yet. Your student may even be able to ask their teacher questions about specific topics if they mention that they need to prepare for the SAT Subject Tests.

College Interviews

During the college application process, your student has the option to have an interview with an admissions representative or alumnus as part of the application. While few colleges actually require an interview, many will offer (and recommend!) evaluative or informational interviews to interested students.

The interview is a great opportunity for your student to get their questions about the school answered, while also showing a bit of their personality that may be hard to show on paper. While the interview may not be required, if your student does decide to set up an interview, they need to take it seriously. They should set aside some time to prepare before the interview, so they go in ready to put their best foot forward.

How to Prepare for a College Interview

Going into a college interview unprepared is like going into a presentation without a presentation — they’re doomed. Follow these steps to make sure your student makes the best impression:

  1. Do your research. There are tons of sources out that provide potential questions they might get asked during the interview. Make sure your student reviews these and is comfortable answering these questions in relation to that college.
  2. Prepare questions. At the end of the interview, the interviewer will likely ask “Do you have any questions?”. This is your student’s question to get any questions they have about the college or college experience answered. Make sure they prepare at least a few questions and don’t go in empty-handed.
  3. Practice! Your student may think they’ve got their answers down pat, but the experience of actually answering a question out loud versus in their head is very different. Have them practice with you to make sure they’re confident with their answers.
  4. Be yourself. Your student wants to show who they are as a person during the interview because going to college is all about finding the “best fit.” Of course, they should be sure to remain professional. Dress smart and remember to smile!
  5. Follow up with a “Thank You” email. The interviewer has taken time out of their busy schedule to meet and chat with your student. Your student should show their appreciation by sending a simple “Thank You” email expressing their gratitude. They may not get a response, but this appreciation will not be forgotten!


Admissions officers are looking for students who pursue their passions. Often, students will join countless activities outside of school because “it will look good on their college apps,” but in reality admissions officers would rather see students making a long-term commitment and showing deep involvement in a few activities to show true interest and engagement.

Extracurricular activities can come in many forms including: student government, sports, part-time jobs, music and the arts, or volunteering and community service. Regardless of what your student chooses, being able to participate in extracurriculars while also maintaining good grades shows to admissions officers:

  • Time-management skills
  • Ability to prioritize
  • Motivation
  • Responsibility
  • Leadership qualities

When students are involved in just a few activities, it means they also will likely have time to pursue leadership positions within those groups. Holding a leadership position shows more than just passion — it shows a drive to make a change and take on new challenges. Students who make an effort to have an impact in their extracurriculars aren’t satisfied with just passively standing by, they want to make an impact in everything they do.

Choosing Your Extracurriculars

When your student is deciding on which extracurriculars to pursue, there’s nothing wrong with trying out a couple different ones to see which really sparks their interest. Ultimately your student should settle on no more than two or three activities with which they can deeply engage.

When making that final decision, we recommend keeping a few things in mind:

  • Choose activities your student is truly passionate about. This may not necessarily be the activities that line up closest with their professional aspirations, but that’s okay. Getting involved in something completely separate from their academic interests gives students a chance to pursue other interests and become more well-rounded.
  • Find a balance. Pursuing extracurriculars should complement you student’s studies, but should not take up so much of their time that they cannot handle both. Doing too much can cause your student to burn out. Make sure you help them find a balance where they feel challenged, but not pushed past their limits.
  • For professionally-related interests, use internships as a trial run. Internships are a great way for your student to learn more about their professional interests and goals. By gaining work experience in the field they’re interested in, they can figure out if that is a field they’re truly passionate about and learn about a potential future career.

To give your student a little inspiration in case they’re having trouble deciding, we’ve compiled an Ultimate List of Extracurricular Activities to get them started.

The Mid-Year Report

The Mid-Year Report (MYR) is often sent to colleges after first semester/trimester grades are available as a supplement to the original college application and shows the student’s continued work and updated achievements. These reports are especially important for students who applied early or received deferred decisions because the information in the report may help improve their chances.

Not every college requires an MYR, but we highly recommend sending one to show the college that your student is still very interested in them. The MYR also shows that your student is continuing to focus on their academics and extracurriculars throughout their senior year. By updating colleges on any additional achievements, scores or distinctions that your student has achieved since their application was submitted, they can make the best case for why they are a great fit for that school.

What to Include in Your Mid-Year Update

Your student’s counselor will most likely be the one sending the MYR, and by default, will likely be including:

  1. Class Rank
  2. GPA
  3. Transcript

If your student would like to include anything else in the MYR, they should reach out their counselor to pass on the relevant information. We highly recommend taking advantage of this opportunity and including things like:

  • Any recent accomplishments. This can include things like being appointed to leadership positions, breaking records in sports, raising money for a good cause, or moving forward in science competitions. Anything that shows your student pursuing their interests is worth mentioning.
  • Additional portfolio work. If your student is creatively inclined and has added any recent work to their portfolio make sure to include that. Make sure this work is professional quality and will really show off your student’s talents.

While we recommend including anything that may improve your student’s application, it is possible to include too much. You don’t want to overwhelm the admissions committee with too much new information that it becomes a lot more work for them. Select the information you want to include carefully and be considerate of the reviewer’s time.

Show off Your Strengths

Applying to college is a stressful time for both you and your student. You want to be sure they’re putting their best foot forward to maximize their chances of getting into their dream school. Whether it’s through SAT Subjects Tests, college interviews, extracurriculars, or the MYR (or all of them!) there are so many ways outside of grades that your student can show off why they’re a great candidate.

In the next chapter, we’ll break down the best way to help your student decide which colleges to apply for. We’ll provide examples of factors to consider including type of college, GPA and test score ranges, and financial situation. By curating a list of colleges that fit your criteria and interest your student, you can make sure you’re spending your time and money applying to the right places.

Step 1: Decide What Type of College Fits Your Academic Interests

The nature of higher education is surprisingly diverse and includes more than just more “traditional” public, private and community colleges. Before nailing down which specific colleges your student wants to apply for, they need to first identify what their interests are and what type of college fits those interests.

Public/Private Universities

The broadest classification of higher education is the four-year public or private university. These are larger institutions that offer a varying range of majors for undergraduates, ranging across the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields. Students take a range of courses, not necessarily just within their major, to receive a well-rounded education. Universities also offer more than just undergraduate programs, including graduate or professional programs awarding higher degrees.

Many universities also have a focus on research, meaning that faculty will split their time between teaching and pursuing research. Because these universities are also comparatively larger, that may result in an increased reliance on teaching assistance and larger class sizes.

While their structure is largely similar, public and private universities differ most noticeably when it comes to tuition.

  • Public universities are called such because they’re funded by the public, often through state taxes. Because of this, tuition is usually decreased, especially for in-state students.
  • Private universities tend to have higher tuition rates, but that also means they tend to have higher endowments. This means they can usually provide more financial aid to those who need it.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Most universities have colleges within the institution that are focused on undergraduate education. Examples of this are the Yale College within Yale University or the College of Arts and Sciences within Cornell University. However, there are some Liberal Arts Colleges that stand alone.

Liberal Arts Colleges tend to offer majors that are one expansive area of study, whereas universities may break up these larger majors into two or three different tracks. Classes at Liberal Arts Colleges also tend to be smaller in size with lower student-teacher ratios since these colleges are usually smaller than universities.

Tuition at Liberal Arts Colleges is higher since they are mostly private. However, they also tend to have large endowments so can provide more need-based financial aid.

Other Types of Colleges

While the two most common types are larger universities and smaller liberal arts colleges, there are some other types of colleges your student might be considering.

  • Community College. These are typically two-year programs that award students with associate degrees. Some students choose to start college here because of the lower tuition and higher admission rates. If your student plans do to this and then transfer to a four-year program, they need to make sure their community college course credits will transfer over and count toward their bachelor’s degree.
  • Vocational-Technical Colleges. These are perfect for students who have more specific skill-based career goals and are interested in gaining the specific skills required to excel in that field. These programs can range from two to four years and focus specifically on career-related courses. Upon completion, students are awarded a certificate of completion of an Associate of Science degree. Vocational-technical colleges tend to be more expensive than community colleges.
  • For-Profit Colleges. Similar to vocational-technical colleges, for-profit colleges offer career-oriented programs, rather than subject-based majors, targeted to students interesting a particular line of work. The difference is, tuition is their main source of revenue, so their acceptance rates tend to be higher. While this may be attractive to some, it’s important to do some research before sending in an application. Many for-profit colleges have been receiving backlash for overcharging students while providing low-quality education. Also, make sure to check that the school has regional accreditation. These may be more competitive and expensive, but the degree is more highly regarded (and sometimes required) by employers and other four-year programs your student might transfer to.

Step 2: Build Your College List

Now that your student has decided what type of college they’re interested, it’s time to start building and narrowing down their college list. There are three categories that are used to refer to colleges relative to your student’s admissions criteria:

  • Safety: These are schools where your student exceeds the average admissions criteria
  • Match: These are schools that are the right fit for your student’s admissions criteria
  • Reach: These are schools that are particularly selective relative to your student’s admissions criteria

We recommend that your student applies to three safety, three match and three reach schools to minimize the risk associated with the college admissions process. To determine which schools fall into which category for your student, there are certain statistics that you should pay particular attention to.

But before we dive into the criteria your student should be looking at to build their list, we want to address this idea of systemically inflected self-selection. This is when students in the lower half of the socioeconomic status distribution substantially undermatch, meaning that they attend a college at least two selectivity levels below the level that they actually qualify for.

On the flip side, there is little evidence that students perform worse at institutions with higher average SAT scores than their own. So rather than only applying to safety schools, we recommend taking a chance and applying to some reach schools as well. You never know what might happen!

Now let’s dive into the qualifications and metrics to consider when building your college list. These criteria can fall into two main categories: academic and financial.

To help you on your search, we’ve put together this downloadable college list builder worksheet. On it, you can keep track of important criteria and develop a ranking for colleges to apply to.

College List Builder Worksheet [Free Download]

Download your College List Builder Worksheet to match target schools with key admissions criteria. Use your college list to set the foundation of your college search.


Academic Criteria

The most important personal academic criteria your student needs to keep in mind are their GPA, Test Scores (ACT/SAT), course rigor, and extracurricular activities. The *institutional* academic criteria to consider when deciding whether a school is a “safety,” “match,” or “reach” include a school’s acceptance rate, retention rate, graduation rate, and student to faculty ratio.

Below are typical examples of admissions criteria among top-tier, mid-tier, and lower-tier schools. These can give you a general sense of the types of schools your student should include in their search based on their admissions criteria.

Very Selective Colleges

University Name Admittance Rate GPA SAT Range ACT Range Graduation Rate
University of Chicago 8% 84% of admitted students have GPA over 3.75 1490-1600 32-35 92%
Yale University 7% 97% in top tenth of class 1480-1600 31-35 97%
Grinnell College 25% 81% in top tenth of class 1330-1540 30-33 86%
University of California, Berkeley 15% 98% in top tenth of class 1330-1540 29-34 91%

Less Selective Colleges

Univesity Name Admittance Rate GPA SAT Range ACT Range Graduation Rate
Ursinus College 83% 25% in top tenth of class 1120-1320 23-30 78%
Wagner College 69% 40% of admitted students have GPA over 3.75 1110-1310 22-27 64%
Humboldt State University 75% 13% in top tenth of class 960-1180 18-24 46%

Financial Criteria

In an ideal scenario, every student would have the opportunity to attend the college that is the perfect fit for them. The unfortunate reality is, though, that the steep cost of college is often a limiting factor in what schools a student can attend.

But before you write off a school as way too expensive, it’s important to know that the situation is less dire than it seems.

  • State schools are subsidized for in-state students
  • High-cost colleges are typically much more affordable than their sticker price may suggest
  • There are need-blind colleges that do not discriminate admissions standards based on financial health, including some of the top-ranked schools

In fact, there are many financial aid opportunities available to low-income students that many students are unaware of. Only about one-third of full-time college students pay full tuition. It may even be possible that low-income students would pay less at a selective institution where they qualify for more financial aid than at a less selective college with a smaller endowment. Make sure to be aware of how much you would actually need to pay before you decide a college is too expensive to apply for.

Many top colleges recognize that there is a severe education gap correlated with socioeconomic status and are making an effort to attract and graduate students on the lower end of that scale. Below is a table showing how top colleges rank on a College Access Index scale.

College Access Index


To help your student in their search for information, we’ve put together a list of useful resources:

  • In 2015, the White House released an initiative intended to introduce more transparency into the college selection process for families, particularly in terms of vetting institutions. They were collected into the White House Factsheet and center around the College Scorecard which provides reliable national data on college cost, graduation, debt and post-college earnings.
    • ScholarMatch, StartClass and College Abacus are three college search resources that implement College Scorecard data to help students put together a list of colleges based on metrics that are important to them
    • PayScale uses College Scorecard data to analyze various colleges’ return-on-investment
    • InsideTrack uses College Scorecard data to develop and implement effective student-centered initiatives
  • College Insight, College Board’s Big Future, Cappex, College Confidential, and Niche are all useful college search websites that provide statistics and “matching” capabilities.

Important to note: Rankings such as US News and World Report are not the most useful metrics to make your decision, for they utilize data such as alumni donation rates, which may not always be particularly useful.

Step 3: Visit Colleges

Once your student has decided on which colleges to apply for, it’s time for them to actually get a feel for what it’s like to be on campus. As we discussed in the first chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, visiting colleges is a great way to demonstrate your interest in the school, which will only bolster your application. We recommend taking a look at College Board’s Big Future, which has a great College Visit finder feature.

Of course, we also know that college visits can get expensive. There are many colleges that will fly out students from underrepresented populations to visit campuses. Keep an eye out for opportunities in your area.

Another alternative is to visit similar “type” colleges in your local area (large university, liberal arts, etc.) to find a good cross-section of experiences. Many colleges will also hold alumni interviews in your local area, so even if your student can’t visit the school before they apply, they can show their interest and connect with others to learn about what it’s like to be a student at their school of interest.

Build a List That’s Perfect for You

Deciding where to apply to college seems like a daunting task if you don’t know where to start. By following these steps, you can help your student narrow down their potential list of colleges and find the school that is perfect for them.

In the next chapter, we’ll talk about the most important step when applying to college: how to actually apply. We’ll break down the different applications your student will need to complete and the multiple rounds of applications they may experience as they continue through the college admissions process.