10 Factors for Building Your College List

How to make a college list

10 Factors for Building Your College List

Published June 3, 2021 | Last Updated March 31st, 2024 at 07:30 am

How to make a college list

The process of searching for colleges and building your college list can be daunting. After all, there are thousands of schools to consider—nearly 4,000 according to U.S. News & World Report.

Creating a college list will not only help your child consider what they want to get out of their undergraduate experience, but which schools they can afford to attend.

Here are some suggestions to get you started.

How to Make a College List

Start Researching Schools in Your Freshman Year

Don’t be put off by the word “research.” When it comes to learning more about a school, there are a number of ways to approach the process so it’s not as intimidating.

For example:

  • Attend college fairs as early as freshman year
  • Scroll through college websites and their social media pages
  • Read course guides
  • Estimate costs and scholarship/merit opportunities
  • Review statistics on class size and extracurricular programs
  • Schedule virtual or on-campus visits

The more time you invest in learning about schools, well before it’s time to apply, the better your chances of finding the right fit and having options to choose from when colleges send out acceptance letters each spring. 


College is an investment, and affordability is crucial to figuring out whether a particular school is financially within reach. One helpful first step is to use a Student Aid Index (SAI) calculator to see how much your family may be asked to pay each year of your child’s education. You can get a school-specific estimate by looking at the net price calculator, which shows—factoring in financial aid—the cost of that college, minus scholarships and grants received. 

Other affordability indicators to look for include:

  • The percentage of students who’ve had their full financial needs met 
  • The number of students who received merit scholarships
  • The average amount of merit awarded
  • Data about the average alumni starter salary and mid-career salary
  • The number of students who take out loans
  • The average amount of debt that students graduate with

Look at College Rankings

Each ranking authority has its own criteria—some are region- and program-specific—but most compare information about the strength of a school’s academic programs. Rankings often list the percentage of full-time professors, student-teacher ratios, student loan default rates, and more.

Lists and publications such as CollegeFactual, Fiske Guide to Colleges, Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges, U.S. News & World Report, CollegeXpress, and The College Finder are great starting points. 

Narrow Your List Down to a Manageable Number

While some students apply to 20 schools and others apply to just one, experts generally recommend a list with between six and ten institutions that include a mix of safety, target, and reach schools.

This will increase the chances of being accepted by more than one college and being in a position to make a choice on your own terms.


You can get a good sense of how diverse a school is by checking out its demographics. You can also do online searches for historically Black colleges or universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and historically women’s colleges. Data about how LGBTQ-friendly a school is can be found on the Campus Pride Index

In addition, schools can be sorted based on the socioeconomic backgrounds of the student body, the percentage of international students, and what religious organizations are available to students, depending on what’s important to your child.

Think About School Size and Location 

Regardless of the size of the school your child is considering, encourage them to visualize the campus and classroom experience.

Very small schools like St. John’s College have fewer than 1,000 students, who often know each other and their professors very well. Small colleges like Williams College have fewer than 4,000 students; mid-sized schools such as Rice University have between 4,000 and 10,000; large schools like Bowling Green State University have 10,000 to 20,000 students; and very large schools such as the University of Massachusetts, Amherst have more than 20,000 students.

Keep in mind that larger schools may offer some smaller classes, and smaller schools may offer some larger, lecture-style classes—especially for required courses during freshman year.

Your child should think about location and what type of community inspires them most. Are they looking for an opportunity to work closely with students and professors? Do they prefer the idea of a city environment or perhaps a more rural or suburban campus?

At some schools, like the University of Illinois at Chicago, students attend classes in high-rise buildings in the heart of the city. At others, like Hiram College, students study on a quiet, secluded campus. 

Location not only impacts the feel of the school community, and the off-campus opportunities available, but also the ease of getting home. Does your student prefer a short commute or are they okay with air travel?

If air travel is involved, how far will they be from an airport, and how will they get there? What about meal plans versus cooking in dorms?

These are all good questions to discuss.

Residential and On-Campus Life 

What kind of campus organizations—from comedy troupes to sports teams and anything in between—is your student interested in joining?

Is there Greek life on campus? What types of sports are there? What about special events and speaker series? 

As for where your student will be living, check out what the school requirements are (most require freshmen to live on campus), as well as the options for single rooms, doubles, suites, and more.

Look for whether most bathrooms are down the hall or in the rooms, and what your child’s comfort level is with these options. See how many students live on campus and if most students remain or move off campus after freshman year. 

The Major  

When it comes to finding schools that offer the major your student is interested in, take your time and do your research—especially if it’s something specialized. While lots of schools offer generally robust programs across the board, an aspiring marine biology student might want to look where that program is the strongest. A future hotel administration major might want to research which colleges offer the best job placement.

Opportunities for Experiential Learning 

Want to make sure your child’s education extends beyond the lecture hall? One way to do so is to create a list of colleges with plenty of opportunities for studying abroad and volunteering.

Don’t forget to include schools with solid career resources—they can help undergrads learn about different career paths, land internships and jobs, and even help if they decide to continue with graduate school and need employment while doing so. 

Choosing a college is a very personal decision, and every student’s college list will look different. The earlier students start familiarizing themselves with schools and thinking about preferences, the easier developing the perfect college list will be.  


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

College Spreadsheet: The Ultimate Guide to Making, Using, and Organizing Your College List

How to Motivate Juniors to Start the College Process

How to Pick a College That Loves You Back




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