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. That way you’ll feel confident that each college 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 travel to each school. 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 ahead before your visit to set up some classroom visits 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. Ask the students in the class which they get more out of, if it’s a mix, or if larger classes are primarily reserved for freshman core prerequisites.

Have you spoken with an advisor?

When you plan your visit, make an appointment to sit down with an academic advisor — and don’t forget to grab a business card. You will want to contact them again after you leave, 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 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?

Can you sleep over?

A night in the dorms can tell you a lot, so try to set one up through an academic advisor before you arrive. By getting a firsthand look at campus life, you’ll get a better understanding for the campus dining halls, the student vibe (are they close-knit or competitive?), and the diversity of available social activities.

And remember, if you’ll be using public transportation at college, you’ll want to make sure your school has a great system in place, so hop on the bus and check it out.

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 passion matches 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. 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. Grab whatever financial information you can while you’re on campus 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, stop by the financial aid office to talk directly with them about your situation.

Are your options flexible?

Once you’ve taken your college tours, 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 still staying focused on options that work well for you.

Want to read more about applying to colleges?

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