With over 3500 colleges in the United States to choose from, it’s no surprise that many students struggle to decide which of them to apply to. This blog will provide a step-by-step guide to making this process effective and even fun! We recommend that you explore and visit colleges throughout junior year and finalize your college list in the summer before senior year.
Finding Your “Best-Fit” College Features
The most important aspect of the college admissions process is FIT. Which colleges will be the best fit for you as a unique individual? At which colleges will you be most able to grow academically, socially, and personally?
Start by thinking about your preferences. Here are some features to consider as you build your list of “best-fit” features:
- Size. A small college (with fewer than 4000 students) tends to offer a more close-knit sense of community, with smaller, discussion-based classes, and closer relationships with professors. On the other hand, a large college (with more than 10,000 students) tends to offer more options of courses, specialized programs, clubs and organizations, and even friends. And a medium-sized college (with about 3,000 – 10,000 students) provides a blend of qualities of a small and large school.
- Liberal Arts vs Specialized Programs. Smaller colleges tend to offer a “liberal arts” curriculum, with courses in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, such as psychology, history, and biology. On the other hand, larger universities often include specialized, pre-professional colleges within the school, and focus on areas such as business, engineering, communication, and architecture. Your academic interests and preferences for a certain size of college will help you decide which type of school is best for you.
- Academics: Majors and Minors. What subjects interest you the most? Which classes have you most enjoyed? Research academic programs on colleges’ websites. See how many faculty members are in your areas of interest and review the departments’ courses and research opportunities. If you have a few different academic areas of interest, you will likely be able to pursue multiple subjects at college through a double-major or a major and minor. In colleges in the US, typically you can choose any combination of fields for a double-major or major/minor. For example, I have worked with students with a major in engineering and minor in studio art, a major in physics and minor in dance, and a major in Spanish and minor in biology!In addition, colleges are increasingly offering degrees in interdisciplinary areas, such as Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at University of Pennsylvania, biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis. An academic area that has been growing at many universities is STEAM, the combination of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math.
- Distribution Requirements. In addition to the courses in your academic major, think about whether you have a strong preference for being exposed to a broad-based curriculum, or having the freedom to construct your entire course of study. Most colleges require that you take 8-10 courses (about a third of your total coursework) in a variety of academic areas in order to receive a broad-based education. Colleges range from having no distribution requirements (such as Brown University) to having a prescribed core curriculum (Columbia University). Most colleges fall in between, offering choices of courses in a variety of categories. For example, Princeton University has distribution requirements in the areas of Epistemology and Cognition, Ethical thought and Moral Values, Historical Analysis, Literature and the Arts, Social Analysis, Quantitative Reasoning, and Science and Technology.
- Study Abroad. Most colleges offer the opportunity to study abroad for a semester or year and provide credit for coursework at other universities. Some colleges, such as New York University, have developed their own programs abroad, staffed by their own faculty. How important is it to you to study abroad? If so, research colleges’ study abroad policies to see how feasible it would be given your intended major, and find out the percent of students who typically do study abroad to determine if it is part of the school’s culture.
- Internships. Would you like to work for an organization for a semester or more during your college years? This opportunity can be an excellent supplement to your academic coursework and expose you to potential careers. Some colleges build internships into the curriculum by requiring that you participate in one or more “co-op” semesters. Additionally, internships are more available in cities than in remote areas.
- Extracurricular Activities. Are there clubs and organizations that are very important to you in college? These might include a cappella groups, theater, athletic clubs and intramural teams, religious organizations, or community service opportunities.
- Location. Do you prefer a certain location in the US or beyond? Do you want to be in or near a city, or do you prefer proximity to nature? Is it important for you to be close to home?
- Social Life. What is your preference for the social life on campus? How important is it to have strong athletic spirit or the presence of Greek life?
What is your personality like? As you reflect on these features, take into consideration your personality! Are you more extraverted or introverted? Would you prefer meeting a lot of people or spending time with a small group of close friends? Do you prefer a more structured or laid-back environment? Do you like to learn from classroom instruction or do you prefer a more hand-on approach? The more you understand yourself, the better equipped you will be to find a college that is a good fit for you.
Making the Most of Your College Visits
Now that you have identified features that are important to you, what’s next?
Research colleges to decide where to visit:
- Research colleges online. Look up their websites, and read about their academic programs, extracurricular activities, and college culture.
- Read college guidebooks, such as The Princeton Review and The Fiske Guide.
- Speak with college students.
- Attend local information sessions of colleges.
Plan to visit colleges. Now that you have identified schools that could be a good fit for you, visit their admissions websites to see if you need to register in advance for a tour and information session. Plan to eat in the dining hall so that you can speak with students and get a feel for the culture of the school. Try to arrange meetings with professors in your fields of interest; you can ask them why they chose to teach at the college and how they would describe the student body. You can also meet with staff in specialized offices, such as honors programs or learning centers.
In gathering all this information during your visits, you will begin to discover your college preferences.
Creating Your College List
Now that you have visited colleges and evaluated whether they are a good fit for you, you can develop your college list. Keep evaluating their features to make sure that your colleges suit your needs. The goal is not only to be accepted, but to succeed and thrive at your colleges!
Decide on 10-12 colleges to apply to. We recommend that you end up with 10-12 colleges on your list, with a combination of reach, target, and safe colleges. Generally speaking, here are your admissions chances at these categories of schools:
- Safe: more than a 75% chance of acceptance
- Target: about a 50% chance of being admitted (your profile matches the profile of admitted students)
- Reach: less than a 25% chance of acceptance
Assess your candidacy! The most important factors in college admission remain the numbers:
- Grades, especially in the core curriculum courses of English, history, foreign language, math, and science;
- Rigor of curriculum, evaluated within the context of what’s offered at your high school;
- Standardized testing, including the ACT or SAT, Subject Tests, AP exams, and IB grades.
Learn about your high school’s admissions history. Most schools use Naviance, a web-based software program that presents the admissions outcomes of students from your school, based on their GPA and test scores. Compare your academic profile with students from your school who have been accepted to colleges in which you are interested.
Below is a scattergram of students who applied to Emory University from Schreiber High School in Port Washington. If your GPA and test scores place you in the top right of the scattergram, near all the green squares of accepted students, you have a strong chance of being accepted, if you meet Emory’s other criteria. If your GPA and test scores place you in the lower left below the icons of accepted students, Emory may be a reach for you, unless you have a strong admissions “hook,” such as being a recruited athlete, legacy, under-represented minority, or first-generation student.
Boost your candidacy through your personal qualities. Although colleges place significant emphasis on your grades and test scores in their evaluation of your candidacy, qualitative factors have increased in importance over the last decade. Colleges are interested in all the ways that you will contribute to campus life outside the classroom. To that end, engage in extracurricular activities that genuinely interest you. These activities can play a positive role in the following aspects of your application:
- Essays and Interviews: you can discuss your involvement in activities in your Personal Essay, colleges’ supplemental essays, and interviews;
- Recommendations: you can ask for letters of recommendation from people outside the academic courses, such as research mentors, coaches, clergy, supervisors of employment or internships
Balancing “Reach” With “Realistic”
Keep in mind overall admissions trends. The numbers of students attending college has been increasing and is projected to continue to increase over the next decade. More students are applying to college, and each student is applying to an increasing number of colleges. As a result, admissions rates have declined, and selectivity has increased. It has become increasingly more important to have a realistic list.
Make sure your college list is balanced. In a typical college list of 12 colleges, about 5 should be “target” schools (you have about a 50% chance of being admitted), with about 3-4 each of “safe” schools (more than a 75% chance of acceptance), and “reach” schools (less than a 25% chance of acceptance).
Tailor your list. Each individual’s college list should be suited to their academic and personal needs. If you would like a very challenging academic environment and have a strong academic profile, you could have more reach schools. If you would like a more manageable course load, or are trying to manage learning, emotional, or psychological challenges, you may want to increase the number of safe schools.
The process of deciding which colleges to visit, which to apply to, and which college to attend is complex! If you would like individualized guidance, feel free to contact us at www.collegiategateway.com. As always, we’re happy to help!