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The Best Way to Start Your College Search? With a List

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This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

So you’re staring down your senior year senior year and impending college application season, drumming your fingers on your desk. 

Where to begin, where to begin?

With all the terms to learn and opinions to navigate when it comes to choosing a college, better get basic.

Enter the college list. 

Building a solid college list sets you up for success from every angle when it’s your time to receive college acceptance letters, and is the perfect starting point because the colleges you add to your list will dictate which moves you need to make next.

Thankfully, with every step along the journey to creating your perfect customized college list, you’re already in the right place to search everything you need to know about colleges at  

Getting Started

Start Your List ASAP

No matter your age, it is never too early to start planning your college list.

The ideal time to develop a college list is during junior year, when you have an idea of the GPA (and early SAT/ACT test scores, hopefully!) you will be working with to help you shape your college list. (Remember, you’ll be applying to every college on your list with the cumulative GPA earned by the end of your junior year.)

Your goal: Have your college list finalized before summer break after your junior year. This leaves your summer wide open for final additions to your college activities resume, like any career-shadowing experiences, and for writing as many college admissions essays before your senior year begins. 

But this list is not iron-clad.

Every year, seniors who get through early decision deadlines decide to re-evaluate their college list in the early spring to add a few more regular decision schools to diversify their options. So the colleges you add to your list now are giving us a solid foundation and college admissions strategy, but they’re not the end-all, be-all.

Peek At the Details & Plan, Plan, Plan 

The colleges you add to your list can affect your next moves, and honestly what you do next depends on your personal goals.

The earlier you begin building your list, the more time you allow yourself to take the SAT/ACT test again for a better chance of admission (if you’re leaning on their “below average” scale) or complete not only every supplemental essay on your list, but also meet every priority scholarship deadline to maximize your potential aid at each school.

Also, depending on your intended field of study, there may be specific course requirements at some schools, which would be helpful to know in advance.

For instance, it is often a requirement for majors within an engineering department to have taken calculus, chemistry and physics. Completing your research and knowing this requirement in advance, even preferably before your junior year, allows you to register for the right classes so the college can see these prerequisites are completed or in progress. 

Develop a College Search Strategy. Now. 

To begin building your list, look inward and evaluate those personal goals mentioned before.

If your top focus is to have a prestigious top name university on your resume, your college list will look very different from your classmate who is planning on a football scholarship to attend a state university.

Your college list should fully support your goals. 

The first step is to create a spreadsheet with columns that include:

  • application and scholarship deadlines
  • average SAT/ACT/GPA
  • supplemental essay prompts
  • requirements specific to your major
  • tuition and housing costs
  • merit scholarships you are qualified for.

More advanced spreadsheets can even include:

  • distance from home
  • average cost of plane ticket home for holidays
  • potential for internship opportunities in the city beyond the college campus
  • cost to park on campus

Now that your spreadsheet is organized to your heart’s content, it’s time to research using’s college search engine and information guide, and start adding schools that support your long-term goals.

Putting Your Picks Into Categories

Safety Schools

Easy peasy. These are the schools you “know” you’ll get into.

It’s best to start closest to home and with the options you are most familiar with by adding safety schools to your list first.

Safety schools should be schools that:

  • you’re not worried about acceptance to.
  • have high acceptance rates.
  • have average applicant profiles with GPA and test scores lower than your own.
  • are, typically, in-state colleges that you’re familiar with and are close by.

Although this is rarely mentioned elsewhere, safety schools should also be “financial safety schools” and either offer low cost of attendance overall or substantial merit scholarships to match your statistics.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to look at housing, as price conscientious schools rarely charge over $11,000 for housing and meals.

For these financial safety schools, you’ll likely be adding mostly in-state schools, since nonresident tuition typically edges tuition out of the “safety” category.

Neighboring states often offer reciprocity with border states, so you might find a great deal in the next state over. Private colleges with $60,000 tuition rates should not be in this category, even if they have high acceptance rates.

With safety schools, the focus should be on accessibility of admission and affordability. 

Safety schools are great options to add to your list because they offer flexibility.

With a safety school, you could save money on the forefront and use the funds you are saving for study abroad experiences or applying for interesting internships out-of-state. Many students attend a safety school for their undergraduate degree, and attend a more prestigious school for their master’s degree.

I recommend adding at least three safety schools to your list. 

Match Schools

Match schools, or target schools, should comprise the majority of your college list, as these schools should be a match for your test scores and grades with their published average acceptance scores.

In this category, you’re still paying attention to the financial component, but the price tag may increase a bit.

Here, start adding the private schools that will have flexibility in their merit financial aid and also out-of-state schools that you have followed and admired for years.

These are the schools that you can realistically see yourself attending.

I recommend adding at least five match schools to your college list.      

Reach Schools

The reach school category is the area that will vary drastically from one student to the next.

A reach school is one that you are “throwing your hat into the ring” for an acceptance by submitting an application.

Either this is a school with a weighty name, and is considered a reach for almost anyone, or it could be a school in which your grades and test scores lie below their published acceptance averages.

In either case, a greater emphasis will be placed on your activities resumes and essays for these schools. 

Typically, students add three to five reach schools to their list, often a couple of Ivy League schools and other top-tier institutions.

For a student planning to pursue an advanced or accelerated degree, like a BS/MD program, this number may be substantially larger.    

Diversify Your Options

As an independent college counselor, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked from new families is, “How many schools should we apply to?”

Once again, the response comes down to your long-term goals. At minimum, that number should be 10.

Let’s break this down together: If you are a student whose applicant profile is a good match for the Ivy schools and those schools are your focus, you may only have two or three safety schools on your list, with a dozen or more total schools. For a BS/MD student, you are likely looking to apply to 20 schools total. If you’re planning to major in business and want to stay in-state, your total list might be well under 10 schools. 

The variance among college lists is the reason why it is so important to have a solid understanding of your long-term goals and develop an effective college strategy.

With these numbers on your side, you’ll have a range of options when decision day draws near. 


Author: Michaela Schieffer

Michaela Schieffer is a former admissions counselor and now independent college counselor, guiding students through their college applications and essays through Moon Prep's specialty lies in the Ivy League, direct medical programs (BS/MD), and highly competitive universities.