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Build a College List that Works: 3 Steps to Find Your College Match

by Sophie Herron, on May 28, 2014 10:00:00 AM

As a college-bound student, you know you need to make admissions officers remember you, and that in an admissions pool that is overflowing with great students, your personal essay is your best chance to get noticed and get in.

But even the best essay can’t get you admitted where you are not academically qualified. When I served as a faculty advisor to the admissions committee at Douglass College, Rutgers, our first job was to decide each year what counted as “academically qualified” to attend Rutgers. There is a similar committee at Harvard.

Many students do not know how to build a college list where they are a strong candidate, relying on name recognition and schools in their area. Here are 3 steps to building a college list of institutions where you will be happy and successful, places where your essays will make the most difference.

1. Start with fit and make a long list

By “fit,” I mean list of colleges that have the core attributes you find attractive. What type of community are you best suited for? What type of classes makes sense based on your experiences and aspirations? What activities are essential to your overall wellbeing? If you like running in the country to relax, you may not want to go to college in a big city.

In addition to each college’s website, Noodle is a great new site that compiles reviews, questions, and notable information about each college. Here’s an organizer to keep track of your research.

2. Explore which colleges are a good “match.”

Match is what colleges look at first: the numbers. How do your grades and test scores stack up against other students who apply to each college? Are there any other variables that certain schools look for in their applicants, like community service or athletics?

You can find all this numbers information at Collegedata.com. Consider anything where you are in the top 25% of the students who apply a strong Match. Anything where you’re in the top 10% is a Likely. Below the top 50%? That’s a Reach.

3. Create a final list that balances fit AND match.

By September of your senior year, you want to have a target list of 8-10 colleges. Every college on that list should be a good fit—they may fit different parts of you, but they should all make sense in terms of academics, activities and aspirations. In fact, try to think of your “list” as a circle, rather than a line. You should be happy to get into any of them!

Do balance your schools by match. Different colleges will be a better or worse “match” based on your academic and extracurricular record. You should be a strong match with at least half of the colleges on your list. Balance those matches with a few reaches—and let’s be honest, the Ivies are reaches for everyone—and a couple of likelies.

At colleges where you are both a strong fit and a strong match, your essay will make the biggest difference and is most likely to put you over the top to win both admission and financial aid. As Joseph Latimer of the University of Rochester put it,  “We want that to happen. We are looking for that.”  

Topics:college admission