7 min readJul 29, 2020


Building Your College List Can Feel Like Climbing a Mountain in the Dark

When I was in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, I was getting lots of messages from anxious students about how to create a college list. It’s a daunting task under the best of circumstances, and during a global pandemic, it can feel overwhelming for sure. One night, I looked up and saw the huge mountain nearby filling up a beautiful night sky, and in that moment, it occurred to me that trying to craft a college list might feel a little like climbing that mountain in the dark. You can’t see where you’re going, you might get lost, and you might even stumble. And, I’m here to tell you that’s ok, but we can make it easier if you know the steps to follow — and you take the time to dig in and get to know yourself and what’s important to you. So here they are:

Fourteen Easy-Schmeazy, Nitty-Gritty, College-List-Building Steps

  1. Forget about “The Dream School”

I encourage you to find your “Dream You” — — Y-O-U, not your Dream U ( just U). Maybe you’ve been taught to “dream big” and “follow your dreams,” and I’m all for that, but instead of focusing on finding the school of your dreams, to me, it’s all about finding the you of your dreams. When you’re drooling over that perfect school with a perfect campus and perfect classes, you’re not dreaming about any one school. Instead you’re dreaming about who you want to be and where you can become who you want to be — and there isn’t only one Dream School where you can do that. Figure out what is about that certain school that might make you consider it your dream school, and let’s use that to create your list. Your dream isn’t out there in the form of a college; it is in YOU

2. Create a College

Now, think about that college in your mind — the one you’ve been imagining when you think about the next four years. The one with YOU in it. I’m not talking about a specific college here. I’m talking about the one that drifts in and out of your thoughts.

  • When you imagine your life for those four years, what do you see?
  • What are you doing on a Saturday afternoon or or a Wednesday night
  • Who are you surrounded by?
  • What does the setting look like?
  • What are you involved in?
  • Get creative. Map it. Draw it. Write it. Bullet point it. Or even claymation it. Whatever. Just don’t RANK IT!!!

3. Consider the Financial Needs for You and Your Family — Use the Net Price Calculator

Get your parents involved here. Have them sit down with you and do the net price calculators for various colleges. You can find that by googling “college name” and “net price calculator” or you can go to College Vizzy — with net price calculators for over 500 colleges.

Ask yourself and your parents these questions:

  • Do you need and qualify for a ton of financial aid?
  • Do you need a lot of merit aid because your family makes too much money for financial aid, but you still can’t afford the ridiculous price tags of many colleges?
  • Is money not a problem for you?

4. Think about Your Stats — Use the Common Data Set

Be realistic about your stats. Also be aware that there’s less focus this year on standardized test scores for many colleges, so there’ll be more focus on your grades and course rigor in core classes. Check out the Common Data Set to figure out what some of the college’s institutional needs are. You can find that by googling “college name” and “common data set” or you can go to College Vizzy — with links to the Common Data Set for nearly all the 500 colleges on the site. On the Common Data Set, you can also find out about how much weight a college places on your ECs, grades, test scores, LORs, demonstrated interest, and interviews.

5. Think about the School Type that Interests You

Are you looking for:

  • an HBCU (Historically Black College or University)?
  • a school with lots of diversity or that’s known as a Minority Serving Institution?
  • a college that welcome LGBTQ+ students (use
  • a PWI (Predominantly White Institution)? PWIs aren’t necessarily racist and they often are focused on bringing in diversity, but it can be helpful to have an awareness.
  • a liberal arts college?
  • a women’s college?
  • an art school?
  • a tech school?

6. Consider Geography and Weather

What part of the country appeals to you? Are you interested in four seasons, or are you a sun-worshipper? Do you hate rainy-cloudy weather? How far away from home would be comfortable for you?

7. Think about the Location

Are you thinking urban? Rural? College town? Enclosed campus? City Campus? How close to an airport, bus station, or train station do you need to be?

8. Think about School Size. Ask Yourself:

  • Do I want to know my profs or anonymously slide through at the back of the class?
  • Do I want small, intimate, seminar style classes with lots of conversation, debate, and discussion?
  • Or would I prefer large lecture style classes with a couple hundred people
  • Do I want a mix?

9. Think about the Vibe

Are you looking for rah rah school spirit? Are you more comfortable with a quirky intellectual vibe? Do you see yourself hanging out with a few friends at the local coffee house? Do you want your weekends filled with parties and football and other athletics? Will you find yourself more often than not studying and at the library?

10. Consider the Way the Colleges are Handling the Current Crises

  • Are they relaying information about reopening to students in an open way?
  • Did they care for their international students and homeless students who had nowhere to go when they shut down in March?
  • Did they provide technology for their students who didn’t have access and will they do so this fall if they aren’t on campus?
  • How did they respond to criticism about how they handle students of color on campus. Are they truly open to diversity?
  • How do students of color feel being on the campus?
  • Are they open to needed changes to demonstrate anti-racist values on their campus?

11. Now It’s Research Time!

If you are interested in a certain major or area, look for colleges that have solid programs in those areas. Reach out to the admissions offices. Reach out to students. Reach out to profs. Ask questions! If you have concerns about how they’ve handled the pandemic or protests, look on their social media and read their websites to learn more.

12. Learn How to Research and Where You Should Go

Books and websites are your friends (here are some of my faves…)

Fiske Guide, Colleges that Change Lives, Princeton Review Guides and Website, , College specific SubReddits, Twitter

Learn more about colleges with virtual tours:

  • Colleges’ own websites, tours, and info sessions
  • (here you can find collegereel, youvisit, the art of college,, campustours, and more)
  • Instagram and Instagram live

13. Get Organized with a Spreadsheet

I encourage you to put every school that possibly interests you on this initial spreadsheet and then eliminate some as you begin to learn more about the colleges — especially for important factors like programs, price, distance, or weather.

14. Find Your Balance with a Balanced List


Your SureFire Safety School or Schools.

Make sure you have at least one or two SureFire Safety Schools where you are guaranteed admissions either because:

You are a direct admit or guaranteed admit based on stats.


You’ve already been admitted.


You like the school and can see yourself there.


It’s financially comfortable for your family.

Add a few Lottery Schools if you’re interested)

These are schools with an under 25% accept rate, making them a crazy high reach for everyone — no matter how shiny and sparkly your stats, ECs, essays, and LORs are. There are just too many of the amazing yous to fit in this tiny teacup of highly highly selective colleges


They are schools where your stats are in the bottom half of the class

Finish Up Your List with Likely/Reachyish/Matchy Schools

Schools where your stats are in the top half of the class — maybe even top 75% and they have an accept rate over 25–30%

Whew! I’m tired! But, it was well worth it to create a list that includes colleges that you want on your list because of not only what you can offer them, but what they can offer you! Think carefully about why you want to go to any college on your list and if you can’t come up with specific reasons why (other than some defunct magazine’s rankings), then maybe that school isn’t for you! But, just know that there are dozens more that will fit what you are looking for — as long as you know what you’re looking for! As long as you’re being mindful about what’s important to you and researching and crafting your list with intention, you won’t have too many stumbles along the way. And I’m here — with college suggestions as you begin to dig in and learn what’s important to you!

If you’d prefer to see this How To List in a presentation, I’ve got that for you too — with links and resources!




College Admissions Consultant. Mindfulness in College Admissions. Author: Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit.