A Well-Thought-Out College List: How to Narrow Down Which Schools to Apply To

College list

A Well-Thought-Out College List: How to Narrow Down Which Schools to Apply To

Published April 1, 2021 | Last Updated March 27th, 2024 at 07:13 am

College list

With thousands of colleges throughout the United States, beginning the college search process can be bewildering.

Chances are it is just a matter of time until your mailbox (and your child’s inbox) becomes crammed with promotional materials from colleges near and far, including some you’ve likely never heard of.

However, there is a way to help eliminate some of the chaos—use a college list to guide your child’s college search.

As we like to say, “The List Drives Everything!” It will drive how much work is required of your student in terms of essays and applications, it will drive where your student is accepted, and most important the list will drive how much college will cost you. This is why creating a balanced college list that is well researched, well thought out and one that will provide you and your students options to choose from when acceptances arrive, is so important.

How Do You Create a Balanced College List?

There are a number of factors that should guide your efforts to build a college list. Perhaps the most important for many families is affordability.

Knowing how likely it is that your family will be able to afford a given college is crucial; after all, there is nothing more heartbreaking than your child gaining admission to their dream school only to find out that it is financially out of reach.

For this reason, the first step towards building a college list should be determining what your family’s budget is.

Of course, knowing what you can pay out of pocket doesn’t rule out universities with expensive sticker prices—many private schools (and a growing number of out-of-state public universities) offer generous financial aid packages.

However, you should be pragmatic about costs early on.

Available Programs

There are plenty of factors beyond cost, and these are where your child should take the lead. Perhaps your child wants to study engineering; not every university offers that major.

Likewise, maybe a strong Greek scene (or lack thereof) is high on their list; knowing important factors at this stage can help ensure they are focused on the colleges that would be a great fit.

Here are some other factors that many future college students care about, and that could well be factors on your child’s college list:

  • Is the college in an urban area or a rural one?
  • How big is the student body?
  • Are there a lot of general education requirements?
  • How good is the college at placing students in jobs or grad programs after graduation?
  • How far away from home is the college?
  • What support systems (tutoring, mental health counseling, etc.) are available to students?
  • What clubs, organizations, or activities are offered? 

How Big Should My College List Be?

If you and your child spend any time on certain college forums, you’ll likely encounter students who have applied to dozens of schools.

Even though many students like to “cast a wide net,” for some, this can be a waste of time and money.

Most college experts advise applying to between six and 12 programs, with 10 being a magic number if your child is considering a lot of especially competitive programs.

However, this is not a hard and fast rule; some students may find applying to four programs is enough (or just one, if they get a great offer from an Early Decision school), while others may want to submit 15 applications to feel that they have covered their bases.

One thing is for sure, however: Make sure that your child isn’t applying to colleges simply for the sake of applying. Application fees can add up quickly!

How Are Reach, Target, and Safety Schools Determined?

Work with your child to break their list up into three tiers of schools—reach, target, and safety ( or “likely”) schools.

Reach schools are those that would be a stretch for your child to be admitted to; additionally, financial reach schools are the ones whose anticipated cost of attendance might be too high without considerable financial aid.

Target schools are programs where your student would have a great chance of being accepted, and that your family would be able to afford.

If your child’s Grade Point Average (GPA) and test scores are between the 25th and 75th percentile for that university, then chances are it’s a target school for them.

Finally, safety schools are those programs where your child should, by all accounts, have no problem being accepted. Their stats exceed the 75th percentile of the student body, and chances are that the college’s admissions officers have already encouraged them to apply for merit-based aid.

What Is a Good Reach School for Me?

Your student’s stats will likely be below the mean for GPA and test scores at their reach schools, but bear in mind that the college still accepts half of its students from that group. 

Admissions decisions aren’t just based on stats; reach school applications are where extracurricular activities or demonstrated interest can really pay off.

If your child’s reach school happens to be their dream school, and within your family’s budget, this could be an ideal time to apply for Early Decision.

At any rate, no more than a third of your child’s college list should be reach programs. Typically, only one or two reach schools are enough for any college list. Target programs should make up the majority of schools on a college list.

How Do I Pick a Safety School?

Even if your child’s dream school is a target school (and they, therefore, don’t want to apply to any reach schools), your strategy should still include a couple of safety schools. Not only are these useful from an admissions strategy but also from a financial aid one.

Safety schools should still meet the requirements your child has for a college, but they should also be easy for them to be admitted, and also affordable. Though nothing is “guaranteed” in the college admissions process, think of a safety school as one where that your child will be accepted to college, but also consider that they will be able to afford it. If you or your spouse suddenly lose your job or face financial hardship, having a financial safety school with a generous financial aid package will be one less thing for your family to worry about.

The college search process is nothing short of bewildering at times, but a solid strategy featuring a thoughtful college list can make it much more straightforward. By focusing on your child’s stats as well as your family’s financial position, a good college list can provide a basis for a perfect admissions and financial aid strategy.


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

The Truth about Your College Acceptance Odds: What Every Student Should Know Before Stressing Out

Navigating College Deferrals: Understanding and Turning Them Into Acceptance




In this article:

Upcoming Events

Similar Articles for You

Dear Roadie: Should I Get A Second Job So My Daughter Can Graduate Debt-Free?


Dear Roadie: Should I Get A Second Job So My Daughter Can Graduate Debt-Free?

Dear Roadie, I am flabbergasted at the cost of college today. My daughter is a stellar student, and the last...

Dear Roadie: Do Parents Need to Become College Admission Experts? I’m So Lost


Dear Roadie: Do Parents Need to Become College Admission Experts? I’m So Lost

Dear Roadie,  I’m the mother of a 10th-grader, and I’m realizing I need a crash course in college admissions. I...

Dear Roadie, My Son Returned From Orientation Hating the College He Chose. What Now?


Dear Roadie, My Son Returned From Orientation Hating the College He Chose. What Now?

Dear Roadie, I’m a bit freaked out. My son returned from his two-day college orientation and said he hated everything:...

Become a Member

At Road2College you’ll find everything you need to make the admissions and paying for college process less stressful and more transparent.


Explore R2C Insights™ — your source for finding affordable colleges and merit scholarships.


Get coaching on admissions and college financing.


Join Road2College where parents and experts work together to inform and inspire college-bound families.