Sizing Up the Field: Advice On Selecting a List of Colleges

With over 3000 undergraduate programs in the United States alone, the most important point to remember as a high school student is that there is indeed a college for you. Falling into the psychological trap that there are only a few “really good” colleges – selective and recognizable names – is simply selling the diversity and quality of what is available short.  There are many “hidden gems” out there.

How students and parents narrow the field of choices is a challenge; it can be a daunting task especially if you are a “first timer” and have not had an older sibling to break trail for you.  How does one size up a college from a website, a virtual tour, or communication from the admission office? What are the specifics one should look at? What are the essential questions you should ask yourself and the college?

There is no singular entry point and answer to these questions. This said, I first recommend you find the fulcrum point between the criteria you deem desirable – academic interests, region, size, and setting to name a few – and the “realities” you present. Before you get too smitten by brand names and respective view books, you need to ask yourself some important questions:  How closely does the selectivity index (statistical admission profile) of a college align with my academic record to date (grade point average, curricular rigor, rank in class, preliminary test scores, and extracurricular interests)? Does this college have the resources to meet my financial aid needs and is the college need blind or need aware? Does this school have the right academic support for me?

Using the colleges’ selectivity index (grade point average rankings, mid-50% SAT/ACT ranges, and admissibility records and percentages) is a pragmatic and efficient way to make preliminary comparisons between your academic strengths and the college’s admission data for their latest incoming freshmen class. How competitive will this college be to get into in the context of my academic data? This does not mean that you should never consider applying to “statistical reaches” or “playing up” in terms of your ambitions. But to fall in love with several colleges before you know their admission standards and profile can be shortsighted and compromise your overall success. For this reason, I/we typically recommend that students apply to five or six colleges with a “smooth curve of selectivity” (Bill Mayher) meaning you have some statistical reaches, some possibilities (higher degree of rejection than acceptance), and some strong probabilities (higher degree of acceptance versus rejection) in your college list. Our ultimate goal for March (when admission decisions come in)  is to ensure that you have choices with which you are happy. To achieve this outcome, a lot of consideration has to go into where one applies based on the “fits” that are both optimistic and pragmatic. As my good colleague Bob stated, “you do not want to sell yourself short, but you also don’t want to leave yourself short.”