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How to Build a College List

Given that there are well over 4,000 colleges and universities in the US, it's highly likely you'll find at least one that's right for you.  Early in the admissions process you focus on finding schools that will accept you; that choose you. Yet once you start receiving those acceptance letters, the tables turn and now it's all about you choosing the school that you want.  Remember, you're the customer; not the other way around!  It's you who will be picking up the tab for the next four years … or longer.  Don't settle for whatever school you think will have you.  

Ideally, you want to develop a pretty long list of colleges – 20-30 schools is not unusual.  Don't panic!  You won't be visiting or applying to all of these schools, but they will give you a great deal to think about and help you winnow down your initial list by giving you a good basis of comparison.  The best way to start building your college list is by using an online tool – if for no other reason than being able to automatically save your list and edit it throughout this process.  Many public and private schools use a pay-for service such as Naviance or Scior.  If your school uses such a resource, take advantage of it.  You should easily be able to locate a college search engine that will ask you to identify characteristics of a school that are important to you. Another resource, FREE and available to the public, can be found at
www.bigfuture.org.  This is the site run by the College Board.  If you've ever taken the SATs or APs, you'll already have an ID and password for this site.  If you haven't tested yet, then you'll need to create one in order to use the college list building tool. 

There's a lot more to selecting the right school than making sure that they offer a major in your area of interest.  In all honesty, any Liberal Arts College worth its tuition should satisfy most students' academic interests.  Does this mean that all Liberal Arts schools have equally successful business programs or offer all the same engineering majors? No.  But it also doesn't mean that you're limited to attending MIT, CalTech or RPI in order to pursue a career as a software engineer at Apple.  For this reason, some things to research about your colleges of interest are: at what companies, businesses, etc. do students hold internships or co-ops? How active are the school's alumni? What percent of graduates leave school with a job?  What percent go on to grad school? When do students begin working with the school's Career Center? What services are provided? Are there additional fees associated with these services? Does the school hold job fairs? If so, how many times per year? How many companies and corporations are invited? How many attend? Are they regional, national or global?

General Considerations

  1. Location – rural, suburban, urban
  2. Size – small (under 5,000); medium (5,000-15,000); large (15,000-40,000+)
  3. Cost – how much debt are you willing to incur to attend a particular school?
  4. Distance – is it too far or too close to home? 
  5. Transportation – can freshman have cars on campus? Is there access and transportation to planes, trains, buses? Are there other students in attendance with whom you could carpool?
  6. Calendar – when and how long are the breaks? Is this a 4-1-4 school? Can students be on campus during breaks?
  7. Population – male/female ratio; percent of international students; number of states represented; LGBTQIA-sensitive; is there cultural, racial & socioeconomic diversity? 
  8. NCAA? What division?
  9. Housing – guaranteed for all 4 years; single sex; co-ed; substance-free; freshman only; themed; lottery or upperclassmen preference given?
  10. Social life – variety of clubs/organizations; Greek life; partying on or off campus; curfews?

Academic Considerations

  1. Do they offer a major/minor in your area of interest?

  2. Do the subjects of interest to you/your intended major require additional application – i.e. School of Engineering, Business, Fine Arts, etc.

  3. When are you required to declare a major?

  4. Is there a Core Curriculum or General Education requirement?

  5. Study Abroad - Do they have any sister campuses; do they coordinate there own overseas programs; do they use a 3rd party study abroad company? Are you restricted to one semester abroad? What's the application process? Does tuition transfer?

  6. Does this school belong to a consortium of other area schools? Are you able to take classes (not offered at your school) at one of the consortium schools?

  7. What co-ops & internships are available? Are they only available to upperclassmen? What is the application process?

  8. Is there a 4+1 or 3+2 option available should you choose to pursue a Master's degree?

  9. What are the class sizes; the faculty:student ratio? Are professors required to offer office hours? Are recitations available for very large lecture classes? If so, is attendance required?

  10. Are professors required to do research and/or publish? Are they assisted by grad students only or are there undergrad research positions available? If so, are they volunteer or paid? Do undergrads get publishing credits?

  11. What support services are available and do they cost extra – peer tutoring; writing center; study skills center?

Campus Services to Consider

  1. Dorms:  common areas; kitchen facilities; microwave/refrigerators allowed/included or available to rent; cable-ready; laundry facilities & fees; housekeeping rules & responsibilities
  2. Dining facilities: how many on campus; location in relation to dorms; types of meal plans; vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free options; variety & quality
  3. Athletic facilities: for student-athletes only; gym for all students & faculty/faculty families; pool; track; fitness classes; locker rooms; climbing wall; all-inclusive with tuition or additional fee
  4. Health facility: proximity to hospital ER; on site doctors/nurses; counseling; prescriptions
  5. Security: after-hours patrolling of campus grounds/transportation; blue light system; key card accessibility specific to dorms/common buildings
  6. IT Services: wi-fi everywhere; computer requirements (Mac/PC); computer labs; computer rentals; printer access, limits, costs 
  7. Library: size of catalog; access to materials not on site; layout; group study space; quiet rooms/floors
  8. Career Counseling: one-on-one counseling available, beginning when? Access to: alum, co-op opportunities, semester/vacation/summer internships, resume assistance, interviewing practice, job placement, grad school counseling
  9. Religious services: on campus; transportation available if off campus; associated club; active communities
  10. Financial services: on campus banking; recommended banking facilities close by; ATM access; check cashing availability; prepaid campus card; access to Financial Aid advisers; availability of on campus employment​