Finalizing Your List of Colleges

As you begin the process of narrowing down your initial candidate list of 20 or so schools, you will begin to start realizing that there is no perfect college or university.  For each of the schools on your list, there will be defining characteristics and elements which you like and ones which you dislike.  There will be a large number of schools that fit your list of preferences and have both the academic and the extracurricular programs that are of interest to you.

With over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, it is important that you put into some time into researching the schools which you are considering applying to because academics and course offerings aside, you have to take into account the social aspects and dynamics of the various campuses.  This is where you will be spending the next four or five years of your life and you certainly do not want to be miserable and socially unfulfilled during this time.

At this stage of the process, it is imperative that you keep an open mind and be receptive to new schools which you have never heard of but might a be great fit.  You never know what is out there unless you keep an open mind and actively research.  Research is essential for making a good college decision and this means collecting date from a broad range of objective sources and being objective in your assessment.

As mentioned previously, the initial list of schools you want to research should be quite long.  Here at Students International, we recommend our clients to start with a list of about 20-25 schools, and eventually working their way down to 8-12 schools.  In the final list, we recommend that you categorize the schools into three different categories so that you can view visually the range of schools which you will be applying to.  They should be categorized into the following categories:

(i)                 Reach Schools

Reach schools are generally the most selective as well as the most unpredictable schools on your list.  The profile for a reach school will be higher than your profit and that your chances of admission are low.  We recommend at most that students apply to 3-4 reach schools from their initial list if they are applying to 8-12 schools in total.  At Students International, we often encounter very strong students who are top at the high schools and have very strong standardized test scores and on this account feel that the top schools should be Mid-Level for them.  A word of caution; all of the most-selective schools are reaches.  So even if you have best grades in the state/city/high school, a highly selective school such as Harvard or Yale is always a reach for you.  These schools reject hundreds of outstanding candidates every year, many of them who have perfect test scores.   If you are a top student, by all means keep highly selective colleges on your list.  But please put several well-researched backup schools on your list with admission rates above 20%.

(ii)              Target Schools

The profile of a mid-level school should be similar to your profile as well as your personal preferences.  When examining the profile for admitted students at schools, take into aspects of your candidacy such as

(a)    High school GPA

(b)   High school course load

(c)    Standardized test scores

(d)   Extracurricular activities

(e)    Leadership roles in high school years.

Out of the three categories of schools to which you will be applying, you should have several target schools on your list.  So if you are applying to 8-12 schools, 5-8 of those schools just be from this category.

It is worth nothing that given that mid-level schools represent the bulk of your applications that you take into account the fact that your chances may be lower if you apply to a special program/course of study.  So if you are applying to a business or engineering school within a particular university, the admissions standards might be higher for you than if you were applying to a general course at that same university.  What does this mean for you?  It means that there are instances that your grades and scores may be a match for the college but a reach for the program. Do your homework and find out the statistics of students admitted to that program.  You do not want to be caught flat footed.

(iii)             Safety Schools

Safety schools are ones from which you can reasonably expect admissions based on the college’s profile and your numbers.  This means that your grades and standardized test scores are significantly higher than the school’s average scores.  Provided there are no major errors on your part, e.g. bad recommendation letters, missed application deadlines, past academic misconduct, you should be admitted to schools in this category.

However, keep in mind that there is truly no such a thing as a sure thing, especially in college admissions.  For example, some schools actually reject overqualified applicants if they think the applicant is using the school as a “safety school” and is therefore unlikely to enroll if admitted.  If the school accepts too many students who decline to enroll, it will lower the school’s college ranking by lowering its selectivity score (accepted/applied) and yield rate (enrolled/admitted).  This is especially true of schools that are used to being the “safety school” in a particular group, e.g. Dartmouth and Cornell as safety schools for the Ivy League.  Make sure that you have two or three reliable schools on your list that you really like in the event that one or two of your safety schools rejects you for some reason.

Just a word of caution about this process of narrowing down your list; remember that you are not at this point choosing where you will eventually end up, all you are doing is formulating a list that allows you to have the greatest number of good college options in April.  So there is no point in choosing purely Reach schools because you do not want to risk not getting in anywhere.  Be realistic about the process but yet at the same time, it is important that you choose schools that you want to go to, and this applies to your Probable schools as well.  You need to have eight or twelve first choices, instead of having a first, third and last choice.  This way, you will not only manage your expectations but also apply the same amount of enthusiasm and effort into each of the applications.

Multitude of resources at your fingertips

As you are exploring schools and doing research, you should begin to narrow your list to the schools you will visit, and then ultimately to the schools you plan to apply to in the fall.  There are a variety of resources at your disposal as you begin exploring and researching colleges.  Here are some of the resources which you should certainly employ during this crucial evaluative process:

  1. Internet

The Internet has become a powerful tool in researching colleges, careers and financial aid.  Apart from the universities’ websites, there are a long list of reliable and objectives websites which you should definitely use in your research.

Here is a list of some of the best websites out there:

This site is sponsored by the College Board.  In addition to allowing the user to conduct a college search, users can also access other College Board services such as registering for the SAT/PSAT/AP, access SAT practice questions, and obtain scholarship information.

Peterson’s provides information on study abroad, careers and summer programs as well as the usual information on colleges. Along with the College Board site, this is one of the most useful resources for college researchers.

This address takes the user to the site of US News and Report and their ratings/rankings of colleges as published in the magazine. The site also gives the user the opportunity to compare college statistics, search for scholarships and access many articles regarding education.

A college search, scholarship search, SAT/ACT practice tests and links to college life sites are available at this address.

This site is maintained by the Princeton Review. It not only allows you to access its test preparation services, but also provides scholarship information.  It also has a section for parents’ issues.

The College Parents Association sponsors this site which includes a section on scholarship scams, alcohol abuse on campus and many other topics of concern to parents sending their children off to college.

This site offers virtual campus tours for thousands of colleges and universities as well as information on financial aid, and a college admissions message board.


This site is a great resource for international students, providing information on a wide range of topics.  It provides information on all levels of study in the US and is available in many different languages.


By completing this simple form you can have college applications and viewbooks mailed directly to your residence


This website is a free database of over 51,000 digital course catalogs.

  • College Guidebooks

College Guidebooks such as The Fiske Guide to Colleges, The College Handbook, The Insider’s Guide to Colleges, and Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, just to name a few, provide a wealth of information. Most are updated yearly.  Consult your college advisor or counselor’s office, local bookstore, library, etc.  While guidebooks can be helpful, realize that many are written from a subjective point of view, and should not be used as your only resource.  Guidebooks should be used in conjunction with viewbooks, the Web, and campus visits.

  • College Viewbooks/College Catalogs/College Videos-DVDs

These are available from most schools.  The viewbooks generally provide a wonderful pictorial view of the campus along with information about entrance requirements, student life, and financial aid.  But please bear in mind that when you read these view books that you are seeing the school through the marketing arm of the college or university.

Videos and DVDs, like viewbooks, are more promotional, yet they can provide you a feel for a campus greater than the pictures in the viewbook.

College bulletins or course catalogues will give you in-depth information about major programs and other academic opportunities such as study abroad programs and curriculum requirements.  The catalog will provide an indication of the depth and breath of courses offered. Many catalogs are available online through the College Source website (

  • College fairs

College fairs provide an excellent way to gather information about a variety of schools and add your name to the schools’ mailing lists. When choosing a college, you need all the information you can get.  But visiting each campus can be expensive so before visiting all the colleges on your initial list, it is better to have narrowed down that list substantially.  This is where college fairs come in.

This is especially so for international students attending college fairs in their home country/home city.  These fairs are sometimes held by a single university but most times, schools participate at university fairs where many different colleges and universities are represented in one venue.

When you attend college fairs, be prepared with a few questions, and try to visit with as many representatives as possible.  One suggestion would be to take printed address labels with you to avoid filling out cards at every table.  These labels should include your name, address, home phone, email address, graduation year, social security number if applicable, high school name, and areas of interest.

At these fairs, there will be many booths to visit and people to talk to.  You have to be very focused at these fairs to get the most out of them.  Here are some tips:

(i)                 If you have access to the list of college participating in the fair beforehand, review the list and plan to visit the colleges that interest you most.

(ii)               If there is a map provide at the fair or beforehand, plan a route to avoid back-tracking and getting confused.

(iii)             Many fairs will have an area where experts give speeches.  Block out some time to attend the speeches which are relevant to you.

(iv)             After each college booth visit, spend a couple of minutes to write down what information you have learned.  You will not remember all of it when you get home if you haven’t at least written a few lines down after each booth.

Here are some sample questions which you could pose to the college representatives:

(i)                 What kind of students is your college looking for?

(ii)               What is your college known for?

(iii)             What is the size of your college?

(iv)             What is the men-women ratio?

(v)               What is the area surrounding the campus like?

(vi)             What qualities do admitted students possess?

(vii)           Do you offer Early Decision or Early Action?

(viii)         What are the most popular majors?

(ix)             What is the academic environment like?

(x)               Are there opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research?

(xi)             What is the cost of attendance?

(xii)           What percentage of students receive financial aid?

(xiii)         Does the application for financial aid affect admissions chances?

(xiv)         Is housing guaranteed for students?  If so, for how many years?

(xv)           What support groups are provided for students?

(xvi)         What kind of sports facilities does the school possess?

(xvii)       How accessible are professors both inside and outside the classroom?  Do they have office hours?

(xviii)     Do professors or teacher assistants teach the entry-level courses?

(xix)         What sort of career support does the career services office provide?

(xx)           Does the school organize career fairs?

(xxi)         Does the career office help find the students summer internships?

(xxii)       Is there the chance to study abroad?

  • College Visits

Choosing a college that is right for you is best done in person, rather than relying upon literature and word-of-mouth. Being able to see firsthand where you will be spending your next 4 to 6 years gives advantages that just cannot be achieved by going over the brochures that you have been presented with.  Time and time again, new students arrive on the doorstep of their college without learning just what their new school has to offer, or where anything will be located.  This can lead to numerous problems that can include disappointment, realizations that you did not expect, and unforeseen expenses that you may not have expected before arriving on campus.  There are however, some simple tasks that you can undertake, and a few preparations that you can make to save yourself the stress of jumping into this whole new world of college.

In our experience here at Students International, we have realized that the campus visit has a great impact on students and their decision on where to attend college.  So if you can afford the expense of making the trip, you should definitely do so because it will lend valuable context and depth to an otherwise abstract decision making process.

Generally speaking, if you are visiting the campus as a freshman or sophomore in high school, you might not be able to set up an official college visit which can include an interview.  You will however be able to join the regular campus tours which will be more than enough to get a feel for life on that particular campus.  If you are a junior in high school or are an international students, you should email the college rep to set up an official college visit an interview.

Many schools, in their bid to attract the best and the brightest, go to great lengths to make an impact on their visitors.   If the school allows for it, let the college rep know about your personal interests and educational needs so that they can customize your visit. In addition to scheduling group information sessions and allow you to participate in a student-led campus tour, some schools will even arrange for you to speak with a professor in the field you would like to pursue at college, maybe even the dean of that college or department. They will even arrange for you to sit in on classes and have an interview with the dean of admissions.

In any case, if you have the opportunity to make one of these visits, you should definitely put in the extra little effort to get the most out of your visit.  Go to the school’s admissions office websites to obtain the phone number to make the necessary arrangements.

Tip: If you cannot afford to make the trip, almost all colleges and universities provide video programs about their schools on their admissions websites.  But another, less biased choice for armchair screening tours found online at the  Collegiate Choice Walking Tours The website can be found at and the clips are videotaped at both U.S. and international universities.  Although the videos are not as professionally put together as the promotional DVDs that colleges and universities give out, they are obviously for this same reason less biased.  The camera basically records a student-led tour of the campus, including questions from members of the tour group.  This is no substitution for a first-hand visit, but if you simply cannot afford to go in person, it’s the next-best thing!

The Game Plan for the Campus Visit:

Remember that once you have arranged to make the trip to visit the campus, you need to make the trip a worthwhile one, so that the investment in time and money does not go to waste.  The reason why you are physically there on campus is to ascertain and evaluate certain characteristics that cannot be gleaned from the internet, college fairs, or college guidebooks, etc.

To get the most out of the college visit, you must not only come to the school with an open mind devoid of prejudices and expectations, but also come with clear parameters for your inquiry.  This means being clear from the outset of the visit what characteristics of the school you seek to uncover during the several hours you are physically on campus.  This will help you to remember what you have observed during the tour and it will better aid you in your subsequent decision of which school to apply to and which school you would like to ultimately attend.

The best way to do this is to write down a list of questions for yourself before the visit and to answer these questions as you go along the tour. During this visit, apart from speaking to representatives of the school, you should try to speak with some members of the student body to get a real student feel of the place.  In fact, if you know any friends from high school who attend the particular college or university, get in touch with them and get them to show you around and take you to some of their classes.  If you do not know who from you high school attends the particular college or university, you can always contact your high school guidance counselor to find out who is there from your high school.  Ultimately, students are the best sources of information when it comes to college/campus culture.

Below, I have provided some important questions you should be asking yourself as you embark on this campus visit.  Do not feel you need to have all the questions answered.  Pick the most important questions from each of the categories and address those questions to the relevant individuals.  I have split up the questions into different categories so that you know who to address what questions to during this visit.  You should do this same for each of the schools you visit.

Questions for the Admissions Office

  1. Are the dorms spread throughout the campus or clustered in one area? Is there any kind of shuttle service between classroom areas, the library, the student union, and dorms? How late does it run?
  2. Is there any security system to bar outsiders from entering dorms?
  3. How large is the campus security police force? Does it patrol the campus regularly?
  4. What services are offered by the campus health center? How large is it?
  5. Does the student health center refer students to the local hospital? Is there a nearby hospital? How large is it?

Questions for Students

  1. How many of your courses are taught by a big-name professor and how many by a teaching assistant? Who teaches the lab sessions?
  2. How large are the classes?
  3. Is the teaching innovative and project-oriented, or is it mostly lecture-oriented?
  4. Do most freshmen class lectures take place in an amphitheater?
  5. Have you ever been in a faculty member’s home?  How often?
  6. What are the strong majors? The weak majors?
  7. How hard do you have to work for your grades?
  8. Where do the students study?  In the libraries or in the dormitories?
  9. What’s the reputation of the _____________ department?
  10. How adequate for your needs is the campus computer network?
  11. Do fraternities and sororities dominate the social life of the college?
  12. What do students do on weekends? Do most go home?
  13. Where do most of the students hang out?
  14. What would you change about this college?
  15. What is the biggest student issue around here?
  16. How is the advisement system? Do you feel that your professors really care?
  17. There are a lot of organizations on campus. Are they dominated by a few groups or is anyone welcome?
  18. How active is the _________ [fill in the activity in which you’re interested]? Has _________ won any national awards?

Questions to Ask Yourself About the Campus Atmosphere

  1. While you were waiting for your interview in the admissions office, how did the staff members interact with students? Were they friendly, or did the staff approach students—both potential freshmen like you and enrolled students—as if they were interfering with the staff members’ jobs?
  2. Was the Admissions Office a friendly and inviting place with a great deal of information about the school, or was it cold and sterile with little information to pick up?
  3. What did your parents find out about the career planning services offered to graduating seniors and to graduates? What do the services include?

About the Student Body

  1. Do most of the students seem to be like you, or are they completely different?
  2. Either way, how would you feel being in a classroom full of these students? Sharing a dorm with them?
  3. Do the students try to make you feel at home? Are they happy to answer your questions, or do they make you feel like you’re intruding? How do they interact with one another?
  4. Do the students talk a lot about grades?
  5. Do students talk about politics and current events/issues?
  6. How do students spend their time outside the classroom?  How do students spend their weekends?

About the Campus

  1. Does the campus seem too big? Or too small?
  2. Do freshmen live in their own dorms? How do I feel about living in a single-sex or coed dorm?
  3. Are the dorms quiet or noisy? Do they seem crowded?
  4. How large are the rooms? Is there adequate space and light to study?
  5. Does each room have access to the Internet and the campus LAN?
  6. What’s advertised on dorm and classroom bulletin boards? What does this tell me about campus life?
  7. How good is the lighting around each dorm and around classroom and lab buildings?
  8. Do the buildings and grounds look well cared for? Or do they need painting and general repair work?
  9. Is the grass cut, and are the grounds landscaped?
  10. What’s the condition of the playing fields and the sports equipment?
  11. How is the quality of the food in the cafeteria or dining hall? How are the sizes of the portions? Is it healthy or fast food? Are there meal plans?

About the Nearby Area

  1. Does it look like there is much to do outside of campus?
  2. How easy is to get to places off campus? Are there places within walking distance?
  3. Do you feel comfortable and safe?
  4. Are there places to get extra furniture, like bookcases, for your dorm room?
  5. Is there a supermarket nearby to stock up on snacks and soda?
  6. If you move out of a dorm after freshman year, what are the options in apartment complexes or buildings?

In closing, we want to caution you against making the mistake of visiting too many schools on one trip, although if you are travelling great distances this might be the only choice.  The reason why we advise against this is that students who do so tend to get the schools mixed up.  One way of alleviating the confusion is to prepare the questions as mentioned above and answer them during the campus visit so you have some notes to refer to when you finally get home.  Also, students should not be spending too much time away from school because at this juncture, the most important thing for the student to do is to obtain the best possible grades in high school and best possible scores in the various standardized tests.  Without these academic achievements, these campus visits would be pointless and meaningless.


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