How do I make a college list

How To Build A Realistic College List

By Carolyn Z. Lawrence,

Two types of college admissions stories break my heart year after year.

The first happens when a student falls in love with a college that they realistically have very little chance of getting into. They’ll come into my office and tell me that it’s their "dream school" and that there can not possibly be another school worth considering.  This is the one and only college for them. I’ll suggest other colleges that I know would be great matches for them, but, while they may grudgingly add a few more appropriate schools to their application pile, they never really look beyond that "dream school."

Until, of course, the rejection letter arrives.

The other type of student who breaks my heart is the one who builds a list solely of what I call "lottery schools."  These are schools like Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Stanford where the acceptance rate is so ridiculously low that getting in is never a sure bet for anyone, even valedictorians, straight-A students, or SAT geniuses. Unfortunately, like the "dream school" people, folks who build a list solely with "lottery schools" have blinders on. Often, they've been told by parents, friends, teachers, or a guidance counselor that they are a shoe-in for these schools because they are so unique and special. So, they never really look beyond those "lottery schools."

Until, of course, the rejection letters start coming.

These two stories illustrate why I believe that college planning should be "bottom-up" rather than "top down." What do I mean? Bottom-up planning means starting with you, Before you even pick up a guidebook, take a realistic look at your strengths and weaknesses (every student – even those with straight A's and  perfect test scores –  have both strengths and weaknesses!), and thinking carefully about what you, personally, need to be happy and successful during your college experience. 

Then, and only then, start looking at colleges.

When discussing college list development with students I use the analogy of buidling a house. When you build a house, you don’t start with the roof. You start with a solid foundation. It’s the same thing with building a strong college list. Don’t start with the roof – those colleges that are highly selective and likely to be reaches for you. Instead, start with a firm foundation by first identifying several colleges where you have a good bet of admission. These are the schools where your grades and test scores put you in the top of accepted students, or schools that accept a larger percentage of applicants. There are “good bet” colleges for C and B students, as well as A students, and every student applying to college needs them on their list. Once you have your college list foundation in place, move on to building the structure -- colleges where your grades and test scores put you in the middle of the applicant pool, but where getting in is a little more difficult. Finally, just as every house needs a roof, every college list needs a few "reaches," colleges where your grades and test scores are slightly below average, but where you feel confident that other factors might pull you over the top.  However, just as with a house, the list needs to be built from the bottom up; if you start by building the roof, the house will collapse.  When you’ve already fallen in love with the most colleges like Stanford or Harvard, it’s hard to keep an open mind about terrific, but less intensively competitive colleges like DePaul University, the College of Wooster, or the University of Redlands.

Bottom Up College Planning In Real Life

Let's take a look at how this might work in the real world. Paul is a straight A student, who scored 750 math, 750 writing and 700 on critical reading on the SATs. Paul wants to major in biology and go on to medical school after college. His high school teachers love him, his parents love him, his friends tell him he is destined for glory. Surely, he only needs to apply to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and maybe UC Berkeley as a backup, right? Wrong. Those are all lottery schools and, as strong an applicant as Paul might be, those schools turn away thousands of exceptional applicants every year. If Paul is as smart as his grades and test scores suggest, he’ll pick three or four good bet doundation schools and three or four match schools to investigate before he even clicks open the Harvard or Stanford website. I'd suggest, for instance, that Paul build first a solid foundation for his list with colleges like Syracuse University, Santa Clara University, or Case Western Reserve University. Next, he can move up the ladder of competitiveness and check out schools like Emory, Johns Hopkins, Bucknell, and Cornell as possible "structure" school options. Once he has narrowed his choices of good bets and matches down to 5-6, he can move on to those "most competitive" colleges that are reaches for everyone, regardless of how great their grades and test scores are. And, by the way, with  a "rejection rate" of nearly 80 percent, UC Berkeley is never a safety school for anyone.

However, bottom-up planning isn't only for top students. More average students should also start with good bet and match schools before adding reach schools to their list. Sarah, for example, works hard but her unweighted GPA is around 3.5 and her test scores are 600 math, 620 writing and 590 reading. She's hoping to major in international relations and she's heard that Georgetown U. is the best school for that major. While Georgetown is indeed a terrific school for international relations, it is also high reach school for Sarah --- she's not even on the charts when it comes to Georgetown's average stats.  I'd suggest that Sarah put Georgetown aside for now and first focus her search on the other  many other excellent schools for international relations out there. Some "foundation" schools for her to check out might include Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Butler University in Indiana, or Beloit College in Wisconsin. All might be good foundation options for Sarah.  Once she has a few of those schools in place, she can then investigate schools like Boston U, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, and American University in D.C. as possible good "structure" schools to add to her list. All of these schools have strong international relations programs but chances are that Sarah might never have of heard of them if she started and ended her search at Georgetown. So, should Sarah give up on Georgetown? That's the beauty of bottom-up planning: now that she has a solid list of schools that she has a good to excellent shot of getting into, she can add a few reach schools such as Georgetown, Tufts, or Colgate to her list knowing that she has a realistic foundation and strong structure to her list that will give her great choices if her lottery schools fall through. She may not get in to those reach schools, but she'll know she'll be happy with the other schools on her list where she has a solid shot of admission.

So: If you're working on your college list, don't start at the top. Use a bottom-up approach and you'll be able to start writing your applications knowing that ALL of the schools you're applying to, including your "safety" schools, are ones where you can be happy.  Happy hunting!

Next: College Visit Tips For Students & Parents


Based in San Diego County, California, Carolyn Z. Lawrence is a private college admissions consultant who helps students and parents from around the world make smart college choices. Learn more about her personal college planning services for families.


© Copyright 2010-2013, All rights reserved. May not be copied or distributed without written permission from Carolyn Z. Lawrence. School counselors: If you would like a printable copy of this article to share with your students, please Contact me .



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