How to Finalize Your College List

Find the right college for you.

Once you've made a list of colleges you're interested in, you need to understand how to narrow those possibilities. Most counselors recommend that students apply to 5─8 colleges. Applying to more than that usually doesn't make sense.

But how can you decide which colleges to apply to? Here's how to make your college list manageable:

Narrow Your List.

If you're at this point in the process, you've already looked into the locations, sizes, and majors offered. Here are some other things to research:

  • Financial aid packages
  • Variety of academic programs offered
  • Special programs, such as study abroad
  • Clubs and activities on campus
  • Housing options

An ideal way to narrow your list is to start making college visits in person, if possible. You can also make virtual campus visits.

two students viewing computer in room

Sort Your List.

At College Board, we introduce test scores as one additional factor to weigh. As you refine the list of colleges you might like to attend, sort it into these three categories:

Safeties: Your SAT or ACT score is higher than the average score range of last year's first-year class . These are colleges that you feel you have a very good chance of getting into and that you think you can afford to attend. They should also be colleges you’d be happy to attend.

Matches: Your SAT or ACT score is solidly in the same score range as last year's first-year class. These are colleges where you feel you have a good chance of acceptance and that are good matches for you overall.

Reaches: Your SAT or ACT score is lower than the average score range of last year's first-year class. These are colleges that you think may be more of a challenge to get into. Acceptance isn’t a sure thing, but it's realistic enough to be worth the effort of applying. Remember: Colleges consider the whole package, not just grades and test scores.

Balance Your List.

From your sorted list, you should choose:

  • 1─2 safeties.
  • 2─4 good matches .
  • 1─2 reaches.

By having a balanced list, you're adding colleges that you may not have considered before. Ultimately, it's important to build a list that reflects your wants and needs while keeping in mind which schools can meet those wants and needs and help you succeed.

Be sure to complete each section of an application carefully. Otherwise, admissions officers might think you're not serious about their school. They look for students who seem to really want to go to their college.

Use Your Support Network.

You don't have to go through this process alone. Your parents, school counselor, and teachers can advise you when you're choosing which schools to apply to.

Remember, there will be more than one school that's right for you. What you're doing now is narrowing your options to good possibilities. After this step, you should be able to choose again, this time from the colleges that have offered you a place in their first-year class!