written by
Priyanka Singh

College List FAQ: Ask An Admissions Officer

Admissions Tips College FAQs 11 min read
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In the following article, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert and admissions officer Priyanka Singh answers frequently asked questions about the college list! For more guidance on your college list and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


What is a college list?

A college list is essentially a document that you build that includes colleges and universities you are interested in considering for your college search and application process. It can be as broad or specific as you want it to be, and your list can change as you familiarize yourself with different institutions.

How do I start making my college list?

Before you even begin making the list, think about factors that will guide your research. Ask yourself reflective questions about what you’re looking for in a college experience and what type of characteristics are important to consider. What type of academic community do you want join? How do you learn best? What type of social opportunities are you looking for (clubs, extracurriculars, volunteering, etc)?

You can also consider other factors like type of school, size, location, residential experience, etc. to help you understand the key priorities in your search.

Once you have a better idea of your priorities, start early and often with your research. College websites are a great starting point, but be sure to also see what type of informational sessions you can attend. Check if there are virtual tours you can take to see bits of campus, and utilize social media to stay updated—this can also be a great way to connect with current students. You can always crowdsource for recommendations as well from friends, family, teachers, and your counselor.

As you find schools that pique your interest, add them to your list! Keep in mind, your list can be dynamic. You may change your list along the way, and that’s okay! Feel free to organize and structure your list in a way that is most effective for you.

What sort of schools should I put on my list if I have no idea what I want to study?

It’s totally fair to be undecided—figuring out what you want to study is a big decision and it can take time to figure out!

Maybe you want a broader academic experience where you can explore a bit of everything to see what might interest you. If so, you may want to include some liberal arts colleges on your list. These schools tend to have curriculums where you can explore a wide breadth of subjects. Some liberal arts colleges are really open to students coming in undecided. Look at their curriculum requirements—if it appears that students take courses across different fields, that’s a good sign you’ll have the opportunity to explore.

Also, as you research colleges and universities, ask important questions about coming in undecided. How does that institution support and welcome undecided students? When do students typically declare their major(s)? Are there certain majors/programs that you must apply into?

In addition to identifying schools that offer flexibility and support for undecided students, think about some of the other academic aspects that matter to you. How do you learn best, and what type of teaching style suits you? Do you prefer larger lectures or smaller seminars? This can also help you decide what type of academic community would be the best fit for you.

What is a safety, target, and reach school?

A safety school is simply one where there is a strong chance you will be admitted to that institution. A safety school may have a high acceptance rate, thus offering more opportunities for admission. You can also compare stats like average GPA, testing ranges, class rank information (if applicable) to get an idea of how you might potentially measure up in context to their typical applicant pools.

A target school is one where your credentials may fall right within that institution’s ranges. Your chances of admission may not be as strong as a safety school, but your academic qualifications would be right on par with their average ranges, thus making you competitive for admission.

A reach school is one that tends to be more selective with admission. You would be less likely to be admitted to a reach school than to a safety or a target school. In fact, reach schools may not admit the majority of their applicant pool. In some cases, your qualifications may measure up to be lower in context to their applicant pool. There tends to be more ambiguity with reach schools since predicting admissions results may not be as clear-cut.

How do I know if a school is a safety, target, or reach school?

It’s important to do your research! You can assess each school’s ranges to get an idea of what types of metrics they may be looking for to determine admission. This will give you an initial idea to see how you may measure up based on your credentials and qualifications.

Looking at acceptance rates can also help you understand how much of their applicant pool your schools admit. This will give you more context around college selectivity. It may be worthwhile to chat with your respective counselor/advisor to get additional context around the schools you might be interested in applying to.

How many of each should be on my college list?

There isn’t necessarily an exact number since it varies depending on the student, but it may be worthwhile to have about 2-3 schools of each category on your list. Again, you have control to shape, build and refine your list in a way that makes most sense for you. Regardless of whether they’re a safety, target or reach school, they should all be institutions that you would be interested and excited to potentially attend.

How should my GPA factor into my college list?

Some institutions may have GPA ranges and/or minimum GPA cut-offs that they adhere to in their admission process. This is an important factor to research in your search process. Connect with admission officers if you’re not sure or have difficulty finding the answer on the website! Ask how GPA plays into the admission process and if there are ideal ranges or minimums for prospective students. That will help you understand how GPA is weighed, since every school will navigate that process differently. Some schools don’t have GPA cut-offs and won’t necessarily base their decision on GPA, but may instead holistically review all academic components of your application.

How should I build my college list for pre-med?

As you research schools, make sure that some type of pre-med/pre-health track or advisement structure is available. Pre-med is not the same at every institution, so it’s important to weigh what types of experiences and levels of support you’re looking for. You don’t necessarily need to major in the sciences—in fact, there are students from a wide range of academic backgrounds and degrees prior who attend medical school or other graduate health programs.

While it’s important to look at academic opportunities, you may also want to consider how much support you will have. Will it be fairly competitive to connect with an advisor to discuss your post-graduate plans, or will you have easy access to advising?

You may also want to ask about the competitiveness of accessing research opportunities as an undergraduate student. Will you receive the support and encouragement to pursue internships, relevant volunteer opportunities, and co-curricular activities? There are several components to consider when building your college list for pre-med, but the main areas you’ll want to weigh are academic opportunities and support, access to advisement and research, and relevant experiential learning opportunities.

How should I build my college list for engineering?

Different schools may have variations of engineering programs. If you hope to pursue a specific track or concentration within engineering, you may want to build your list based on the types of engineering programs available at any given school. Some schools will offer more general engineering programs where you’ll get broader exposure as opposed to concentrating in a particular area of engineering.

Think about what type of academic takeaways you want as an undergraduate student, and that will help guide your research. Some students want a more concentrated experience following a specific track, while others would like to branch out. You should shape your list based on what you feel will be the best academic match for you as an engineering student.

You may also want to consider if schools have articulation agreements with other institutions to continue your education in engineering. Some schools may offer a dual degree track where you can attain a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science degree. Other schools may offer accelerated engineering programs where you can achieve both an undergraduate and graduate engineering degree in a condensed period. Consider what styles of programs would suit you best and how you hope to engage with engineering during your college experience.

What happens if I don't get into any colleges?

If you’ve cultivated a dynamic college list with a compilation of safety, target and reach schools, you likely will not encounter this scenario. It’s not usually a common occurrence if you’ve done your due diligence to research and apply to a broad range of institutions. However, if you don’t get into any colleges, it is not the end-all-be-all! You have options to consider that will still set you up for success.

You may want to consider enrolling in community college to begin your collegiate career. There are often many stigmas associated with community colleges, but don’t let those misconceptions deter you! They are incredible institutions that support a really broad range of students who want to begin their collegiate journeys. In many cases, these schools can help reduce the cost of attending college as well. Some community colleges partner with 4-year institutions and may have articulation agreements in place. Overall, community college can be a great stepping stone to launch you forward into a 4-year institution.

If you’re not interested in beginning with community college, you could also consider taking a gap year and reapplying to colleges and universities for the following academic year. Some students may join gap year programs, take advantage of employment opportunities, or get involved in different activities or initiatives. Do what you feel will be best for you, and know that you can and will still find success even if your journey doesn’t begin in the “typical” way.

How early should I start building my college list?

You can start building your college list as early as you’d like. Some students gravitate towards junior year of high school to begin building their college lists, but if you’d prefer to start earlier, there’s nothing wrong with getting a jump start! Just be sure to give yourself sufficient time to research and really understand what types of colleges/universities you’re looking for.

Building your college list can be really exciting, and you most certainly should have fun with it! Nothing is set in stone, so start somewhere and see where your list takes you over time! Be open to the idea of change, and trust yourself to know what will be best for you.

How many colleges should be on my college list?

Every student’s list will vary and there isn’t necessarily a perfect number, especially since the number of institutions you have listed may fluctuate throughout your search and application process. What’s more important is that you’ve dedicated time to researching those colleges and universities. Based on what you’ve discovered, these institutions should all meet your expectations and offer opportunities that you’re genuinely interested in.

As you decide to add another school to your list, ask yourself if you’re willing to do the research to see if this school will be the right fit for you. Can you envision yourself thriving in that environment? If yes, consider adding it! It’s also important that you’ve cultivated a robust and broad college list so you aren’t just applying to one type of school but instead have a range of options.

My parents and I disagree about which schools should be on my college list. What should I do?

It’s inevitable that you may have disagreements, and certainly common when it comes to the college search process. It is important to communicate with your parents/guardians and have that open dialogue.

It’s often easier said than done, but one of the biggest underlying factors that feeds into disagreements is the lack of open and honest communication. Take the time to listen to their feedback, but also speak honestly about your motivations around how you built your college list.

If you’re having trouble navigating those conversations, you may want to consult with your respective counselor/advisor to seek some advice or get some help facilitating that conversation with your parents or guardians.

If you’ve found resources that have helped you determine what schools to consider, share those resources with them—it may help them understand your perspective. At the end of the day, you will be the one attending college, so it’s important to stay true to yourself through this process. However, it is also important to take the time to explain your choices and reasoning with the people who care about your future as well!

Is there someone who can help me build my college list?

Absolutely! Our experienced and talented advisors at CollegeAdvisor.com are dedicated to helping you find the right college fit. They will be more than happy to guide you through the process of building your college list. We’re excited to connect with you! Click here to get started.


This informational article was written by Priyanka Singh. Didn’t see your question on the list? Get help building your college list from Priyanka or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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