How to Make a College List: Tips for High School Students

There are so many postsecondary options. Discover how to make a college list of contenders with advice from Michigan college counselor Eva McGregor Dodds.

Checklist on a yellow pad of paper with small books stacked on it

Creating a targeted college list is the first step in opening pathways to college options for high school students, and it’s a key piece of any choosing-a-college checklist.

Spring is a great time of year for juniors to be thinking about building that list, says Eva McGregor Dodds, a college counselor based in Franklin, Michigan and an affiliate of Collegewise, the nation’s largest independent college counseling organization.

Dodds, past president of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling, was a high school counselor, history teacher and athletic coach before going out on her own as an independent educational consultant 15 years ago.

“It is an exciting time for juniors. There is more than one right college for every student,” Dodds said.

“Enjoy the journey as you choose which colleges will be lucky enough to receive your application.”

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Here, Dodds offers advice for how to make a college list that’s the best fit for your child.

What advice would you give to a B+ student who wants to apply to Harvard?

“I would ask, ‘Why Harvard?’ Based on the response, I would share which colleges match those same qualifications – and which are target colleges for B+ students.

“I would not have a problem if one of my B+ students still wanted to apply to Harvard, but it would be my job to set realistic expectations for the student and family – and help reset the focus on colleges which offered the best chances for admission.

“I would also slip in that I believe that the Harvard name is most effective on a graduate school diploma.”

What’s the secret to building a good college list?

“Talk to your child about what’s important to him or her. Ask lots of questions and encourage being open to paths the family may have never considered – or realized existed.”

What are some good questions to help your child get started on a college list?

  1. Where is your favorite place? Big city? Beach?
  2. What type of weather do you enjoy? Warm? Cold?
  3. What do you love to do in your spare time? Football on Saturday? Sipping latte? Debating current events?
  4. What are your “must haves” on any campus? Religious community? Cultural group? Club sports? Access to fine arts?
  5. What is your favorite school subject?
  6. What are your career interests? Not sure? No problem. Have a conversation with your child; ask him or her to share five traits he or she is proud of. Then share five characteristics you associate with your teen. This list of attributes can be a starting point to a conversation about career skill sets.

How can I help my child begin college research?

“Start by visiting any college website; begin at the admission portal, but don’t spend much time there. Go beyond the undergraduate academic offerings, and ask more questions.

“Consider campus demographics. Does the school have access to full professors during the first year, or will my child have graduate student teaching assistants? Is that important to my child? Is there a specific college or major that stands out? History? Psychology? Data mining? Biomedical engineering? Do undergraduates do research at this college?

“When you and your child begin to feel overwhelmed reading about all the academic offerings, move on to the school’s activities and clubs. Do they sound like a match? If the answer is yes, then it is time to take a visual campus tour.”

Should we look at colleges that have hefty price tags?

“I tell my families not to apply to colleges they cannot afford. While determining if a school is a match, it is important to consider finances first. Start with a financial aid page search. Do not be scared off by the overall price without first looking into merit scholarship offerings. If a college is a financial option, keep researching it. If not, do not continue to shop that site.”

How many colleges should go on a list?

“I advise my students to start with a list of 20 to 30 schools. By the start of senior year, that list should be narrowed to five to 10 colleges.”

How can a 16- or 17-year-old student know if they want to attend a small or large college, urban or rural, or a school near the beach?

“Most students are not 100 percent sure what type of school they want when they start to build their college lists. That’s why I encourage all students to tour local colleges. They should visit many different types of campuses and participate in virtual tours.

“Most small campuses offer full research experiences, opportunities to be published, leadership options and personalized advising, which can be harder to find on a big campus. Perhaps they can be a big fish more easily, which might make it easier to get into graduate school or land a job.

“Then again, a big campus offers more options for activities, majors and minors. Students can make a large campus small by applying to a smaller program, such as Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University or the Residential College at the University of Michigan. Each size is ideal for the right student; it is likely the same student will excel at multiple options.

What is the best advice to parents to share with children for building an effective college list?

“Be true to who you are. Do not choose a college based on its name or reputation. Make sure your interests align with the college options. Keep your family budget in the conversation about college options.”

What are the common mistakes students make?

  1. Creating college lists based on their friends’ lists, or by names of colleges they recognize.
  2. Defining colleges by how their parents remember them 20-plus years ago.
  3. Applying to colleges that are outside of the budget.

How can families identify ‘likely,’ ‘target’ and ‘reach’ colleges?

“Every student should have both an academic and financial safety school (colleges with an excellent chance of admission) on their list. To see whether they are qualified academically, students can look at average GPA and test scores for current students at any college, and then compare their own test scores and GPA with that average. They can also consider a college’s admit rates.

“This approach can be deceiving, since many qualified students are denied by colleges each year. They can also pick target schools with a 50-50 shot of admission, as well as a few reach colleges (most selective admit fewer than 30 percent of applicants).”

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The author of this post, Kim Lifton, is president of Wow Writing Workshop, based in Huntington Woods in Michigan. Her strategic communication and writing services company is a leading expert on the college application essay.

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