Building a College List
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Generate, research, and refine a college list.

It’s never too early to start thinking about college, and planning ahead can be particularly valuable since the admissions process at every school has become more competitive with each passing year. Whether you are entering high school or you are a senior about to begin the application process, it is important to understand how the college selection process works, and most importantly, to understand how higher education fits within the larger picture of your long-term goals. In this article, I will discuss a couple important points to keep in mind when building a college list.

Not all colleges are the same, and it’s important for students and their families to understand how higher education institutions differ. Some are public research universities, almost like separate cities within larger metropolitan areas, like UC Berkeley or UCLA. Their campuses are sprawling with all kinds of facilities – lecture halls, administration buildings, stadiums, even observatories and medical centers. The purpose of these institutions is to conduct research and to train graduate and professional students just as much as it is their purpose to educate undergraduates. Often, the faculty at large research universities are expected to spend more time publishing original scholarly work in the elite journals of their respective fields than they are to teach classes.

Other institutions are small, private colleges whose primary function is to educate students. These schools are commonly referred to as the “liberal arts colleges” even though they typically offer the same natural and hard science majors that large universities offer. They are frequently found in or near large urban centers, but they can also be found in rural areas, as is the case with schools like Whitman College in Washington State or Middlebury College in Vermont. Many, like Pepperdine University, are affiliated with religious organizations or are founded on a particular ethos of education, like Sarah Lawrence College or Seattle University. They often require students to take a set of core courses in writing and the Humanities, in addition to the classes required for their major.

The differences between all these institutions can often be quite dramatic in terms of daily experience, classroom instruction style, student body characteristics, and quality or type of preparation for future professional schooling. As a college admissions consultant, it is striking to me how often these differences can be either underestimated or overlooked entirely during the planning process.

Many students and their families tend to glance at the top 25 national universities on the US News & World Report website and choose the schools to which they will apply from that narrow population. They are not aware that their goals might be better served somewhere else. Additionally, a college list consisting exclusively of name brand schools with a 10 percent admissions rate or less is a risky gamble that might not pay off. This is an area where a counseling professional can provide needed guidance and information.

The first step in building a college list is to have a clear long-term goal, and these goals can vary dramatically. One student’s goal might be to attend medical school and become a doctor. Another student’s goal might be to become a better writer and ultimately a journalist. A third student might want to become a lawyer because they perceive problems within our society’s dynamics and want to rectify them. In any case, the goal should be direct, even simple. Once you’ve articulated a goal — a defined end point — then the path to that goal often emerges as a clear, logical progression with college admission a small step along that path.

I would like to make an important point here. College admission itself should not be your goal. “Getting into college” is not the end-point and guarantees nothing for the future. Rather, as I mentioned above, college admissions is part of a larger process that continues long after a student receives their Bachelor’s degree. If anything, undergraduate education is the first step in a progression to career that increasingly requires additional training or certification programs, at the very least, and often a full graduate degree. The most successful students, the students who put together the strongest applications, understand this truth and their college lists manifest that understanding.

Equipped with a goal, your next task should be to research those undergraduate institutions that would best prepare you to reach the steps beyond. A student who wants to pursue Chemistry at the graduate level, for example, might be interested to know that Chemistry majors at Occidental College (one of those “liberal arts colleges”) have a 100 percent acceptance rate into graduate programs in Chemistry, Biochemistry and Chemical Engineering . A student interested in Journalism and/or Digital Media would be well advised to examine Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication, widely considered the leading school in that field . You won’t find Arizona State University or Occidental College ranked among the top 25 national universities on the US News & World Report website, but I would argue that they are perfectly legitimate, even preferable, options in these instances. In each case, the undergraduate school fits within the larger postgraduate goal.

To conclude, keep in mind the following as you build your list of potential schools: (1) be sure to keep in mind your long-term goal and (2) look for large universities or smaller colleges that will provide you with the best preparation for the next step in your development.

1. See Occidental College Department of Chemistry website
2. See

By Andrew McLaughlin , ThinkTank Learning Senior Academic Counselor and Admissions Consultant