Building a College List 101

‘Tis the season to build a college list! For all you looking to enter Higher Ed next year, we have a few tips to build a list of colleges and universities perfect for you and your needs. When building a college list, it’s important to make sure each school on your list is a match for you. Ask yourself what it is you value most in a college or university. Really think about this!

Consider multiple values when researching colleges: Freshman Admission Profile, Acceptance Rate, Cost of Attendance, Cost of Attendance for your Income Bracket, Freshman Retention Rate, Majors, Location, Student Demographics, Size, Campus Life, Average Class Size, Student Involvement Opportunities, Student Support Services, Average Salary After Graduation, Location, Majors, etc.

That’s a long list! So, kick-start your search with these four:

  1. Cost of Attendance (COA) – Each school advertises a “cost of attendance” on their website, but it doesn’t factor in financial aid. So, don’t let the number scare you! The COA shouldn’t necessarily determine whether or not you should apply to a school. The COA doesn’t always equal the amount of money you’ll pay to attend that school. It’s the average cost to attend for one academic year. 

  1. Cost of Attendance for your Income Bracket – This amount is based on your family’s yearly income/financial information. For example, your cost of attendance for SDSU will differ from another student’s cost of attendance for SDSU if your families are in different income brackets.

  1. Graduation Rate – This shows how successful students are on campus and whether or not they graduate.

  1. Freshman Retention Rate – The percentage of full-time freshmen who continue on as sophomores. After all, every student should enroll with the intent of staying at that institution and eventually graduating with a degree. 

Organize your college list into three tiers: Reach schools, 50/50 schools, and Safety schools. 

  • Reach (Extremely Competitive): Your GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and/or class rank are below those of the majority of accepted students. It would take something compelling in your application to override those odds.

Add a couple of Reach Schools on your list—it’s important to challenge yourself. If you get into every school on your list, you’ll never know if you could have gotten into a ‘harder’ school. No regrets!

  • 50/50 (Very Competitive): Your GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and/or class rank are similar to the majority of admitted students’. You have about a 50% chance of getting admitted.

  • Safety (Competitive): Your GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and/or class rank are higher than the average admitted students’. You have a high chance of being admitted. Often, safety schools give the most merit scholarship money because the student applying has a much higher GPA and test scores than their average student.

To determine whether a school is a Reach, 50/50, or Safety, compare your academic profile (GPA, test scores, class rank) to the school’s freshman admissions profile (the average GPA, test scores, class rank of admitted students).

Utilize these websites during your search: 

These websites provide data for each of the values and factors you should take into consideration when creating your Balanced College List. Refer to the list at the top of this post.

Learn as much as you can about schools. Explore their websites, follow them on social media, take virtual tours (especially during this Pandemic).

Add around four schools in each tier, so that your college list is balanced. This way, you can maximize your acceptances.

Let’s go!

Katie Craig



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