A list is usually a helpful organizational tool, but a list is particularly useful as a comprehensive guide to the colleges and universities that you would like to apply to. Your personal list can provide a way to focus your objectives and it will be your No. 1 tool when determining your schools of interest. There are numerous factors to take into consideration when compiling your list, and I will walk you through a few of these so you can be better prepared to make your choices when the time comes.

Lee Stetson

Lee Stetson

Right from the start, it is critical that you divide the list of any schools you find interesting into three categories: “reach” schools, “range” schools and “likely” schools. I have found through experience that this is the most reliable approach, and one that will help you narrow your choices. Each of these categories should be considered separately, and the following parameters should help you to decide what schools fit into each category. You should usually aim to have about one to three schools in your reach group, and these should be your dream schools. These schools will be the ones where the traditionally admitted student tends to have a slightly stronger grade-point average in his or her high school curriculum and a higher standardized test result than your own. Your range schools will be those whose average admission statistics usually are at approximately the same level as your own. It is not unusual to have anywhere from four to six schools in this category — just in case they do not all result in a positive decision. The likely schools on your list — often referred to as “safety” schools, a term I do not prefer — will include those colleges and universities where your credentials are of a higher caliber than those of the majority of applicants, and you should generally try to include two to three schools in this category. In all cases, please be sure that as you add schools to your list that you are prepared for the reality of enrolling at any one of them.

Your particular academic interests can also help to determine your list of schools. While you may have a specific career plan in your sights, do remember that the majority of prospective students list their choice of major as “undeclared,” and I often say that a student’s second most popular major is “I changed my mind.” Although this is an unabashed attempt at “admissions humor,” it’s important to realize that a student’s prediction of what direction he or she would like to take can and may change more than once. In this regard, you are best advised to find a college or university that allows you some flexibility in terms of your chosen area of study. You may want to take a look at The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, as attending students may be able to offer some valuable insights regarding the reality of the upcoming decisions you will have to make.

Cost may be another factor that influences your school choices when assembling your list. Tuition should be considered as well as additional costs such as room, board, meals and general expenses. Do bear in mind that most colleges and universities offer very healthy financial-aid packages intended to help you and your family to afford the cost of attendance. Some financial support will be based on your family need level and some schools offer merit scholarships that provide a range of awards for outstanding high school academic, athletic and/or extra-curricular achievements. I do want to stress the fact that you should not automatically exclude yourself from a college or university based upon cost projections alone. Once you have been admitted, schools will generally actively attempt to include you in your incoming class Please know that a full picture of financial aid will be provided in a subsequent article, and I hope it will address any questions that you may have on this topic.

There are additional variables that you should consider when putting together your list. When evaluating colleges and universities, be sure to explore any details regarding the geographic location and the type of community that they are a part of (urban, rural, suburban). Other elements, such as school size and class size, will also factor in your decisions and you should be able to do some active research to find out what capacity suits you best. If you are pursuing a specialized area of interest in conjunction with your academic curriculum — athletics, for example — you will need to find out if a particular school’s program is a fit for you. Remember that your campus visits should prove extremely helpful when assessing these points. I would also recommend taking a look at The Fiske Guide and The College Board Handbook as they are sources of valuable information that can aid you in your search.

The overall aim of these thoughts is to encourage you to compile a usable, diverse, personalized list to better understand what it is that you are seeking in a school. Consider your choices carefully. While you may be looking at a number of well-known colleges and universities in your search, with a bit of additional exploration you may even discover some unexpected options along the way! By remaining focused, you should be able to ascertain what your key objectives are and which schools are best suited to meet your interests.

— Lee Stetson is chairman of the Admissions Advisory Board for Global Education Opportunities, a private admissions counseling firm. He has dedicated his life to higher education, serving as dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania for the past 30 years. He was also a College Board trustee, and has authored numerous articles on the admissions process.