Top 4 Tips for Making Your College Application List

Here are some things to consider when making your short list of colleges.

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For many high school students, the summer before senior year is the time when they start thinking seriously about applying to college. With more than 4,000 choices—most of which one knows almost nothing about—the task can be daunting, indeed. But how you start the process can have important ramifications for how the choice turns out. To help you approach the task, here are some of our top tips for composing the list of colleges to which you'll apply. (Check back next week for more tips on this topic.)

1. Check out the choices. As you start to think about where you might want to go, it's good to draw from a wide network of sources. In addition to your high school's college adviser, you can get ideas from your parents and older siblings, from family friends who've been to college, from websites at individual colleges, and from some of the phonebook-sized college guides—available at your local bookstore. Two other good ones are from Fiske and Princeton Review.

4-Star Tip. At your bookstore, you'll also find "niche" guides with titles like Colleges That Change Lives and A+ Colleges for B Students. While these can be a good source of ideas, keep in mind that they're giving only a few choices and that many other prospective students will be reading the same lists, thus decreasing your chances for admission to the schools on the lists.

Extra Pointer. College websites are better than print guides in that they offer academic information about the college. As you surf the sites, be on the lookout for information about school philosophy, availability of majors, and the number and nature of requirements.

2. Trust your high school adviser, to a point. Especially today, where college admissions are so important to the reputation of a high school, college guidance counselors can be extremely knowledgeable about colleges. Keep in mind, though, that some of their suggestions can be based on balancing you against other students in your class: At many schools, the college adviser can't let 118 students apply to Columbia. Also, your high school adviser may have developed an artificially narrow list of colleges he or she recommends. For example, he or she might recommend UCLA, University of Arizona, and University of Colorado (all state universities west of the Mississippi), but not University of Vermont, University of Maryland, or University of Georgia (all on the Atlantic coast).

3. Trust the rankings, to a point. One of the things you hear most about—and one of the things colleges trumpet most—is their "rankings," especially their U.S. News rankings. These rankings can give a lot of useful information, the most important of which, we think, are:

—the student-faculty ratio (you'll get more attention when this is smaller);

—the percentage of students who graduate (it's not ideal to attend a college with lots of students on the drop-out path);

—the number of students in the top 10 percent of their high school class (better students, more challenging and better-taught courses); and

—average board scores (again, better students, better classes). Less important, we think, are:

—percentage of faculty who are full-time (one university we know and love reports that 98 percent of faculty are full time, though we know for a fact that half the classes are taught by TA's and lecturers);

—peer assessment (it's rumored that, at some colleges, the president simply dumps the survey on his secretary to check off a few boxes); and

—average alumni giving rate (10,000 alumni, each giving $5, doesn't make for a better school).

5-Star Tip. Keep in mind that minor differences in the rankings generally don't reflect significant differences in the quality of the schools. For example, even though there are a few points separating Washington University, Northwestern, Rice, and Vanderbilt, someone attending these colleges would be hard-pressed to say one is much, much better than the other.

4. Don't make your list into a restaurant menu. In some families, putting together a list for colleges is a little like ordering a family-dinner at a Chinese restaurant: Pick one from column A, one from column B, two from column C. So, the dad (who likes big schools) picks the University of Minnesota, University of Texas, and University of Georgia; Mom (who thinks you'll be lost at a large university) suggests Reed College, Carleton College, and Bard College); and you (who think an Ivy league school would show you're really smart) pick Brown, Dartmouth, and Yale.

At first glance, this might not seem like a bad procedure: Everyone has had his or her say, and you're applying to a broad variety of schools. Trouble is, when the acceptances and rejections come in, and you've gotten into only three of the nine schools, you might have to go to the kind of school you don't want. A better idea: right from the start, before you enter any schools on your list, reach agreement on where you stand on some of the key choices: big vs. small, state vs. private, 4-year vs. community college, religious vs. secular, regional vs. national. Then, start picking colleges of that type.

5-Star Tip. The Fiske Guide and—on some college pages—Princeton Review suggest other schools that "overlap" (Fiske) or that "applicants also look at and sometimes prefer" (Princeton Review). For example, for University of Connecticut, Fiske lists Boston University, University of Massachusetts, Penn State, and University of Vermont; Princeton Review offers University of Delaware, University of Maryland, Northeastern University, and Boston University. These relevant alternatives can be very helpful in composing your list.

Got a tip or story about applying to college? Send it to us at We'd love to hear your experiences.

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