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4 Tips To Help You Create The Perfect College List

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.

A road on a college campus. At the end of the road is a large brick building. In the distance behind some trees is the top of a church. All around the road and buildings are orange and red trees.

Your college list is typically made up of 6 to 8 schools you’ll apply to during your senior year of high school. You can quickly build your college list on your Niche account by adding schools you’re interested in or browsing your matches to see colleges Niche recommends for you.

But let’s back up a minute: how do you even begin narrowing down the nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. to a handful of schools that you could see yourself belonging at? With so many different types of schools to choose from, it can be a daunting process

In this article, we’ll help you break this down into 4 easy steps so you can create the perfect college list that’s right for you. Want to know how to create the ultimate college search spreadsheet so you can stay organized throughout the process? We’ve got you here.

1. Understand Your Reach, Target, and Safety Schools Based on Your Academic Profile

Your academic profile is made up of your GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and extracurricular activities, and it plays an important part in determining what your reach, target, and safety schools are. What do these terms mean in the first place? Let’s break them down here:

  • Reach Schools: A reach school is one in which your GPA and SAT/ACT score falls between (or below) the 25th and 50th percentile. It means that you are unlikely to gain acceptance into the school but still want to apply for the small chance you might get in. Students typically pick 1 to 2 reach schools to apply to. 
  • Target schools: A target school is one in which your academic profile falls well within the range of recently accepted students. In other words, your GPA and SAT/ACT score should be within the 50th to 75th percentile. You are likely to be accepted to your target schools, and you should apply to 3 to 4 of them for the sake of having options. 
  • Safety schools: A safety school is one in which you are highly likely to be accepted to. The purpose of applying to safety schools is that in the case you don’t get into any of your other target or reach schools, you still have places to fall back on. Your stats should fall above average for your safety school with >60% acceptance rates, and you should apply to 2 to 3 of them.

If you still feel worried about getting accepted to college (especially if you are applying to competitive programs), you should add a few more target and safety schools to ease your mind.

Do your research on each school to determine what typical stats are for students who were recently admitted into the previous class. You can also use Niche’s free college admissions calculator to help you understand what your chances are for getting into any college in the country.

Remember: numbers aren’t everything, and part of the college admissions process is simply about luck. Try not to compare yourself too much to other students because everyone has different circumstances and situations.

The Ultimate College Application Timeline

2. Look Into the Majors Offered and Surrounding Opportunities

Once you figure out what your reach, target, and safety schools are, you can start narrowing down schools that match your academic profile by majors offered and surrounding opportunities. 

Look into your prospective schools and see what academic programs interest you, be it the arts, sciences, or something else. Remember that not every college has the same majors or major requirements, so be sure to do your research into each school’s specific program. 

Keep an eye out for schools that have your desired major and good opportunities like competitive internships in the surrounding area, and put them on your list.

Also, don’t be afraid to put schools on your list with different majors. It’s good to have multiple options when it comes down to deciding where you want to attend. 

3. Find Your Perfect Location and Size

The location of your school is an important factor in your college decision. It can determine what job or internship opportunities are in the area, what the social climate and culture is like, and how comfortable you feel being away from home for the first time.

When narrowing down schools by location, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Do I want to go to school near or far away from home?
  • Do I want to live in a city or somewhere more rural?
  • Do I want year-round sunshine or snowy winters?
  • What opportunities for my major are in the area?
  • What’s the public transportation system like?
  • What leisure activities are around for socializing?

Continue down this line of questioning and you’ll start to find common themes among your answers. Soon enough, you’ll start to have a general idea as to what region or state you’d like to go to school in. The CollegeBoard can help you narrow down schools by every state here.

Like location, size is also important when finding what schools are right for you. Going to a school that’s too big can cause you to feel lost and like you aren’t part of a real community. Being at a school that’s too small for your liking can make you feel like you aren’t getting the full college experience and that you’re missing out on something.

To know if a larger school is right for you, you should be comfortable with:

  • Large class sizes or lecture halls
  • Having many classes and majors to choose from
  • Longer walks (or bus rides) to places on campus
  • Living with lots of people in dormitories or campus housing

To know if a smaller school is right for you, you should be comfortable with:

  • Small class sizes
  • More discussion-based lessons
  • Having fewer majors or classes to choose from
  • Seeing the same people every day

One is not necessarily better than the other. Take time to figure out which setting is the best for your learning style and go from there. If you’re stuck in the middle, mid-size schools are always an option.  You can also apply to a mix of small and large schools to give yourself more room to eventually decide.  

4. Analyze the Cost and Scholarship Offerings

It’s time to talk about cost, and let’s face it: college is really expensive, even if you’re going to your state’s public school. Now more than ever, it’s super important to find schools that you not only like but can also afford. 

When researching the cost of your schools, you need to look at the full Cost of Attendance (COA) and not just tuition, which only covers the cost of classes. The COA is a rough estimate of how much you’ll be paying for school each year and includes things like room and board, meal plans, transportation, and other assorted fees in addition to tuition. 

Don’t cross pricey schools off too early: many schools have designed robust scholarship programs to make even the most expensive tuition affordable for deserving students.

Look into scholarships and grants offered by each individual institution as well as the average financial aid award offered. For some schools with large endowments, scholarships can cover the majority of tuition, making the price you’ll pay equal (or even less than) your state’s public university.

My tip is to apply to schools you could really see yourself at and worry about the cost after your financial aid packages roll in. You’ll never know how much aid you might get unless you apply.


By now, you’ve discovered what your reach, target, and safety schools are, what major you’re applying as, the location and sizes of the colleges you’re applying to, and the cost of each school.

Hopefully you’ve found some colleges you really love and ones you could see yourself attending for the next four years. All that’s left is actually applying. Congrats and good luck! 

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Author: Norah Baldwin

Norah is a high school senior from Boston, Massachusetts, and will major in Nursing next year at college. She currently works as a lifeguard and swim instructor for kids, and volunteers with the American Cancer Society in addition to blogging for Niche.