By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
Narrowing down your college list is by far one of the hardest parts of the entire admissions process. Really, after you decide on your colleges, the whole process gets much easier. Here are some tried and true methods that you can use to conquer this beast and move on:
Identify your top criteria
This is the critical first step. What does it take to help you succeed academically and to be a good fit for you socially? You often have to visit some colleges, even random ones while you’re heading to Aunt Freda’s for the reunion or any ones that are totally near your house. It truly doesn’t matter where you visit, just start to figure out what you like:
-Large or small school?
-Urban, suburban, or rural?
-Is school spirit/athletics important?
-What major do you want?
-How easy/tough is it for you to get there/home?
-How much can we afford to pay?
-What do kids do on the weekends, and how many sticks around?
-What percent of kids live on campus?
Make a chart and check off which schools have which criteria
This allows you to see which college has the most to offer you, of the things that matter most to you. A chart is an easy way to keep track and to compare schools at a glance, and it can help you eliminate schools easily when you see how they stack up compared to one another.
Be sure to look at colleges that offer your major
Always check the most current edition of the classic book Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges. This book allows you to see which of your colleges are strongest in your intended majors. Fred Rugg is the national authority on this topic and a really great person. You can trust Mr. Rugg and his fun team down there in SoCal. They know college departments. Mr. Rugg bases these rankings on such factors as the number of faculty in the department, number of courses, special programs, internships, number of students in the program, percent of students at the college in the program, etc etc. Your high school or local library may have a copy of this book. The 30th edition comes out in November of 2012.
Check the Net Price Calculator for Each College
Go on each college’s website and enter your data in the NPC. This will give you an estimate of how much it would cost you to attend that college. Do not feel obligated to enter data about other colleges you are considering if the college asks that. If a college does not meet a high percentage of students’ demonstrated financial need, or if they do not give generous amounts of merit aid, then maybe consider applying to another college. You want to keep your amount of loans low.
Put the schools you know you want to apply to in bold
This seems simple but it really helps. When you see that you have 5 or 7 schools already definite, then you know, “OK, there are not that many more I can consider,” and it helps you focus on those last 3 or 4 that you really have room for and want to add.
Visiting the campus is a great way to determine which characteristics matter most to you. Are the students serious, quiet and competitive? Are the students rowdy and focused on partying? What is life like there on a Tuesday night? On a Saturday night? You need to know yourself (as the Temple at Delphi in Ancient Greece proclaimed). When you know what matters to you, you can sense which campuses are the best fits. Visiting is a great way to get that vibe directly from the actual students who attend the school. You can get some info like this from online forums, but often the kids who log onto those are upset about something, so take it with a grain of salt. Visiting allows you to see and decide for yourself.
Research on the colleges’ website
Look at the programs, professors, classes and clubs the college offers and see if you get excited to participate in those things. Really dig deeply into the website, because what the college values and what they are proud of will be posted on their site. Take good notes, and use the CollegeMapper handout for this purpose, because with your notes you can clearly articulate in an interview and on your application why you like that college. You are doing this research to narrow your college list, so write it down and use it for your application and interview, too. Also, follow the college on social media, too, so you can get a sense for the personality and vibe of the college.
Talk with current students and alumni
The admissions office is often happy to connect you with students who are willing to talk to prospective students about the experience there. You can also connect with alumni in your area and ask if you can meet them for coffee to discuss if the college is a good fit for you or not. Alums are great barometers for who would be a perfect match for their alma mater!
At the end of the day, this is an exciting process and an exciting time of life, so try to keep that in mind as you work your way from 600, to 40, to 7 colleges. (The CollegeMapper College Search returns results from 600 colleges that I chose by hand–the 600 that I find students most often apply to. This means that you don’t have to wade through so many results; I have narrowed them already for you. You can also very easily add any school you would like to your college list!)