College Admissions

Creating Your College List

Five years ago, parents would tell me they wanted their child to go to a college where they will be happy and get a good education. Now, affordability is one of the top concerns. High school seniors who are fine-tuning their college lists and juniors who are starting to create their lists need to be sure include schools that are realistic financially.

That doesn’t have to mean commuting to the nearest community college. There are private and public schools that offer merit scholarships to strong students, and these are usually renewable as long as the student maintains a certain grade point average at the college. If you are a strong student and will be applying for need-based aid, you can target schools that promise to meet full demonstrated need.

The cost of attendance is certainly important, but it’s not the only factor in putting together a college list. Attending the lowest cost school is not always the best option. If a student thrives in small classes with professors who take an interest in her education and would flounder in a big impersonal public university, the savings in tuition won’t mean much when she struggles academically or socially and doesn’t complete her degree.

Many of my colleagues no longer use the term “safety school” and that’s not just because the increasing competition has made predicting acceptances more difficult. Labeling a school “safe” or “fallback” is disparaging, and students can feel they are settling for an inferior school if they end up at one of their “safe” choices. But that’s just not true. If you don’t want to join a club that would have you as a member, you can miss out on some pretty great experiences. When your self-esteem hinges on an Ivy acceptance, you are going to suffer, because even if you are admitted to one of the most competitive schools in the country, the need for validation won’t end there, and that is a precarious way to go through life.

So how do you decide where to apply? Some students choose colleges based on an academic interest. If you want to study engineering or business, subjects that are not offered at every college, you need to make sure the school has a program. But if you plan to major in psychology or English, choosing a college based on the department is probably less important, especially at the undergraduate level. I do suggesting looking through the college catalogue, which is usually online, to see if the department offers enough interesting courses. If you visit a school, it’s a good idea to sit in on a class in your major and ask students what they think of the professors in the department. You might also want to find out how many professors are on staff and whether the department is hiring, as these facts tell you the program has the support of the school. But the quality of the major program is only one factor in choosing a college, and since students often change their major in college, making your decision about a school based solely on a program you might not even end up pursuing is not wise. When you are applying to graduate schools, the quality of a specific program may be the most important criteria. As a prospective undergraduate, you also want to consider quality of life issues.

I always ask students to list their three “must haves” so that they can focus on their most important criteria. If you love the outdoors and need to commune with nature on a daily basis, choosing a college in Colorado or Vermont might be ideal. But if weekend hiking or ski trips would provide enough access to the outdoors, you could also choose an urban school with an active outdoors club. 

Preferences can change during senior year. One of my students only wanted to apply to colleges within driving distance. He hadn’t spent much time away from home and wanted to know he could come home on weekends. But he also wanted a traditional college experience, with big sports, school spirit and fraternities. Since there were very few colleges within 100 miles that offered the kind of college experience he wanted, he reluctantly agreed to apply to a few schools that were much farther away. When he finally visited Indiana University, he decided that getting on a plane was worth it if it meant going to a school that offered everything he wanted. Other students who are convinced they want the adventure of going across the country sometimes decide at the last minute that they really want to stay closer to home. So I urge students to include at least one school that is within driving distance as well as one that feels like an emotional stretch, because you don’t know how you’ll feel next year.

Understanding that financial situations and student preferences can change enables you to plan for those changes. If you make sure to apply to some affordable schools where you are likely to be admitted, you will have choices in April.