Creating your college short list

Female and male students talking and walking away from camera

As you look forward to college applications next fall, this summer is a great time to work on finalizing your college short list — the list of schools you’ll apply to next year.

One of the best ways to narrow down your list of possible schools is to visit the campuses of the top choices you are considering. And while guidelines and restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic may prevent you and your family from actually visiting campuses, many schools offer virtual tours that you can take advantage of. This way, you can still get a feel for your top schools and feel confident that each one on your short list will be a good match for you.

Think of these as the nuts-and-bolts questions to consider while creating your list:

Is this school too far from (or close to) home?

Depending on what type of person you are, college might look even better with the freedom of distance from — or the comfort of nearness to — home. Consider that as you tour each school — virtually or in person. Is it close enough for a road trip home if you miss your family, or will you need a plane ticket?

Do you like a small room or a big room?

Classroom size might not be the first thing you think about, but it can actually be, well … huge. Call the schools and ask about the sizes of classrooms relevant to your academic path. You may enjoy sitting in a massive recitation hall packed with hundreds of other students, or you could crave the close relationship that comes from consistently smaller rooms.

Have you spoken with an advisor?

Make an appointment to video chat with an academic advisor — and don’t forget to grab their contact info. You will want to get in touch with them again after your visit, at least to send a thank-you note. During your time with the advisor, you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions, such as:

  • What are the housing requirements/options?
  • What’s the student-to-teacher ratio, and how many classes are taught by student assistants?
  • Are there active organizations that support and empower Black, Indigenous, and people of color and other minority students on campus?
  • Are there alternative or accelerated programs in my field of study that I should know about?
  • If I’m on a research path, what kind of exciting work has come out of that program? If I’m studying literature, what have the professors written?
  • What kinds of internship opportunities does the school partner with?

What kinds of extracurricular activities do you enjoy?

In college, what happens outside of class can affect your overall happiness just as much as your field of study. Ask yourself if you’d enjoy going to huge football games at a large state school (once stadiums are back at full capacity) or if you’d prefer smaller events at a private college. Is being a part of Greek life important to you? Do you want to play a college sport? What kinds of clubs would you like to join? Your hobbies and interests should play a part in your college decision to help you decide where you’ll be happiest.

Does this school match your passions?

Whether you’re going for arts and humanities, mathematics, engineering, chemistry, or some other program, you’ll want to make sure this school’s passions match your own.

For instance, you may be interested in the school because of its Ivy League status or a family alumni connection, but it may not offer the most interesting program in your field of study. You might make better connections or work with more esteemed professors at another program. Also, if you identify as a minority student, you may consider attending a minority-serving institution to be surrounded by people who share your background. Ask students enrolled in your field of study about their experience — both what they love and what they’d change.

Can you afford this school?

While it would be great if money weren’t an issue, for nearly all college-bound students, it plays a big role. Gather whatever financial information you can and reach out to other students to learn more about their experiences paying for college. Does this school have a lot of grants and scholarship opportunities? What about work-study programs? If you can, call the financial aid office to talk directly with them about your situation.

Are your options flexible?

Once you’ve taken your college tours, whether they were in person or online, you should know which schools you see yourself attending. Keep that in mind as you craft your short list. Aim high for a dream school or two, along with several great match and backup choices, but make sure you feel good about each that you’re applying for. By limiting your applications to a handful of schools, you have your bases covered while keeping application costs down and staying focused on options that work well for you.

Want to read more about applying to colleges?

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