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The World Explained In Plain English.
The World Explained In Plain English.
Building A College List

Building a College List: Finding a School That Fit Your Needs

Generations of scholars and experts have taught us that good decision-making is rooted in facts and reason. Our society puts so much emphasis on the superiority of rational thought that we often refer to logical thinking as the thing that separates humans from animals. However, psychologists and neurologists who study the human brain have discovered that we use reason and emotions in good decision-making, whether choosing a new shirt or a new car. 

Choosing the right college is similar to any other important decision you will make in life. You need to consider the objective qualities of the college and how you feel when you visit the campus. Once you start talking to real college students about how they chose their particular school, you'll meet plenty of disappointed people who ignored their emotions ("The only reason I came here was because it was the best school I got into") or didn't take important facts into account. You'll also come across a lot of happy college students who will tell you how they made the right choice, for them using rational and emotional reasons ("I looked at this school because it had my major, but the minute I stepped onto the campus it just felt right"). 

Identifying Your Priorities 

What's Important To You?

The first step in putting together a college list is to be honest with yourself and reflect on what you want and don't want from a college. There are many factors to consider. Answering the following questions will help you understand more about what is important to you and what you need to succeed in the next stage of your life. Once you know more about your preferences, you can start narrowing down the list of schools that might fit your criteria.

Location/Campus Setting

  • How far do you want to be from home?
  • Do you want to be in a city, country, or suburb?
  • Is it important to you that the college has a good rapport with the community that surrounds it?

School Type

  • Do you prefer a liberal arts school that focuses on undergraduate education, a research university that also has graduate schools or a technical school that specializes in preprofessional majors like engineering or graphic design?
  • Is it important to you that professors-not teaching assistants or graduate students-teach all of your classes?
  • Do you care about having access to faculty outside of class?
  • Would you be happy at a school that targets specific demography, like a women's college, a Catholic college, etc?

School Size

  • Would you prefer a small college (under three thousand students), a medium-sized school (three to eight thousand students), or a large university (eight thousand plus students)?


  • Do you have strong preferences for majors or minors? If so, here are some things to consider when developing your college list:
  • Does the school offer the major that you want?
  • Do you have the option of choosing a minor in addition to your major?
  • Can you double-major if you have two strong areas of interest?
  • Can you create your own customized major from courses in different departments? (For example, if you are interested in theatrical set design, can you combine courses from the drama and art departments to create an individualized major set design?)
  • Do students who major in certain subjects take longer to graduate than others?

College Course Requirements

  • Do you want to be at a college with an open curriculum that will allow you to take whatever classes you want, a school with rigid course requirements that will ensure you graduate with specific skills such as learning a foreign language or something in between?

College Costs And Financial Aid

  • What is the cost of tuition, fees, room & board, and books?
  • What percentage of students at that school receives financial aid?
  • What percentage of financial need does the school commit to meeting?
  • Can the financial aid package be adjusted if there is a change in your family's circumstances, such as the loss of a job or if a sibling is also in college?
  • Is work-study available and easy to get?
  • Does the college offer any need-based grants or scholarships to students? What are the criteria? Are these rewards renewable?

Diversity/Campus Culture

  • Do you care about the male-female ratio of students on campus?
  • Do you want to attend a college where women and men take on leadership positions?
  • Is it essential for you to have racial/ethnic/religious diversity on campus?
  • Is it vital to be able to practice your religion on campus?
  • Do you want access to a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple?

Social Life

  • Do you want to join a fraternity or sorority?
  • If you do not want to be a part of a fraternity or sorority, do you mind going to a school that has Greek life?
  • Do you plan to drink in college, or do you prefer a school that hosts many "dry" campus parties and events?
  • Do you want a school that emphasizes community service?
  • Are there particular extracurricular organizations, such as the school newspaper, debate club, campus radio station, or others, that you would like to join in college?
  • Is it important for you to attend a school with a strong "school spirit"?
  • What are the alumnus giving rate? (This is the percentage of graduates who donate money to the school; it can be a good indicator of alum satisfaction.)


  • Do you want a "political" campus? If so, do you care if most students agree with your point of view, or are you open to being in the political minority?

Academic Support/Grading Policies

  • Do you need any special educational support services to help you succeed academically?
  • Do you want a school that will allow you to take courses pass/fail?
  • Is it essential to get into your first choice courses each semester?
  • Do you want a school with flexible policies, such as adding or dropping courses?
  • Do you plan on studying abroad?

Graduation Rates

  • Is it necessary to you to graduate within four years?

Post Graduation Support

  • Do you hope to get a job right after college? If so, what are the career advising resources? Can you get help with a resume and interview preparation? What percentage of students get jobs immediately after graduation?
  • What is the placement rate for students who look for jobs immediately after graduation?
  • Are there any ongoing professional networking opportunities for alums?
  • Do alums have access to the college's career advising services?
  • Are you considering a particular professional path that will require you to earn a graduate degree eventually?
  • Is it necessary for you to have an internship while in college?

Look Over Your List

Take a minute to review your answers to these questions. Can you spot any themes? Are certain things such as location, size, Greek life, politics, and graduation rate nonnegotiable? If so, take a moment to write down your priorities.

Now look over your list and circle the three things that are most important to you. These are the major priorities you need to consider, such as cost or whether the college offers the courses you want to take. The rest of the list constitutes your minor priorities, the things you would like to have, such as good sports teams or Greek Life.

Making a priority list is the first step in finding your dream college. Planning ahead is the rational part of the process, where you use your preferences to put together a manageable list of schools you will visit later. Your college list should only include schools that fit each of your three major priorities and at least some of your minor priorities.

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