How To Create Your Balanced College List

While not every student will follow these exact steps, we’ve outlined a basic way to create your balanced college list below. As you work through the college application process, it’s completely okay if you start to hone in on a small number of schools on your list or remove schools entirely. Your balanced college list is a reference and shouldn’t be set in stone! With that in mind, let’s get down to business.

  1. Determine your interests and preferences. It’s important to take an honest look at your personality and preferences in order to gain a clearer sense of who you are and in what type of college environment you would be most likely to succeed. There are numerous ways to explore your personality and identify your strengths, interests, and values. A great place to start is with the free resources found on the School Buff website hosted by Steven Antonoff, one of our mentors. 
  2. Figure out the specific qualities and characteristics you want in a college. Do you want to go to a large university or would you prefer the intimacy of a small liberal arts college? Are you interested in participating in undergraduate research? Is there a specific academic program or major you are looking for? Do you envision cheering on your school’s football team in an enormous stadium filled with your classmates and fans? How do you feel about going to college in the middle of a city? How about in a very small rural town? We highly suggest working through the “Qualities That Will Make A College Right For You” worksheet found on the School Buff website linked above. 
  3. Do your initial research to find schools. Once you have an idea of what you are looking for in a college, it’s time to begin your research. Use websites such as,, or to help you find colleges that match your criteria and interests. Go to your high school’s college center to look through college guidebooks such as The Fiske Guide to Colleges, The College Handbook, The Insider’s Guide to Colleges, or Colleges That Change Lives. Hopefully this step will lead to a long initial list of colleges you wish to research further. 
  4. Categorize your initial list into match, reach, wildcard, and likely schools. Using either your favorite search engine to pull up a list of averages or searching for each college’s Common Data Set, order your list into the ‘reach, match, wildcard, and likely’ categories. Don’t worry about non-academic factors yet!
  5. Next do extensive research on the schools you found above.
    a. In this context, research simply means reading and taking notes. You’ll obviously want to start with the schools you’re most excited about, but don’t skip over lesser-known schools or schools that might be “likely” schools. Your goal here is to look for aspects that would change where a school sits on your list: maybe that school you thought was a reach has an academic program actively recruiting students like you! Or perhaps one of your likely or solid match schools meets your needs perfectly, and you’d like to put it on the top of your list.
    b. Look at college websites—you will find information on admissions, campus events, special programs and majors, athletics, the faculty, student services, financial aid, blogs, and more. Visit college campuses in person or online. If you can’t visit, check out and for online virtual tours.
    1. Narrow down your list. If you started with a broad list of colleges, you’re bound to come across schools during your research that you’re just not interested in applying to. Remove these schools from your list, and work with your counselor and family to come up with a college list with various degrees of selectively and with a manageable number of schools to apply to.

    Your Balanced College List is The Beginning

    Remember, your college list shouldn’t be set in stone from the moment it’s written. Up until you start actually sending out applications, there is time to do what you can to improve your grades, retake tests, and become more involved in your extracurricular activities. What seems like a reach school right now may very well end up being one of your match schools by the time you start applying for college.

    If you’re unsure what you’re looking for, how your scores stack up or are having trouble pinning down a list of best fit colleges, we’d love for you to reach out to our team of experienced college counselors. We’ve got the knowledge you need to create a balanced college list that suits you, and we’re here to help you every step of the way as you enter this new and exciting period of your life.

If you missed Part One of this blog series, be sure to check it out here.