8 Important Factors to Consider while Making the College List for USA

There are more than 4,000 colleges in the US. Even if you pick a couple of top public universities from each state and add the elite private ones, you will end up with 150+ universities. Here we have laid out the important factors to keep in mind while making a balanced college list for USA.

Making a Balanced College List

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to deciding where you want to apply to college. There are thousands of institutions to choose from in the US that suit any combination of interests, goals, and priorities. And you can start narrowing down these options to a selected few. 

Set out your priorities first and critically think about what’s most important to you in a college as you begin to make your college list. Not every student would like to leave their home state, while some would prefer finding a competitive sports team or active Greek life.

Therefore, we would suggest you narrow down your choices of college list and arrange them in order of personal priority. So even if you have dreamed of a specific single college, we suggest you take a second look at the bigger picture and then shortlist.

Even for students who have dreamed about a specific single college from the time they were in grade school, taking a critical look at the bigger picture and creating a college list based on your own priorities is an important process.

Here we shall outline ten critical steps to narrowing down your college list so that you send out a selection of smart, targeted college applications when the time comes, and ultimately attend a college that is a great fit for you.

8 Important Factors to Keep in Mind while Making College List

Your Overall Profile

Before you can really start taking a serious look at colleges, you’ll need to take a serious look at yourself. It is no doubt hard to assess one’s self but having a realistic perception of your own accomplishments, strengths, and weaknesses will help you to make a college list that is realistic for you.

Grades and Class Rank

First, start off with your grades and class rank. Are they excellent, average, or somewhat lacking?  A college admissions committee first looks into your GPA and class rank. While a poor GPA won’t exclude you from admission, it won’t help your chances either.  

Test Scores

Next, you will need to consider your test scores. While it’s likely that your scores will improve if you take your standardized tests again, your initial scores will give you an idea of where you stand. If they aren’t as strong as you’d like, consider taking steps to improve them.


Finally, consider your extracurricular activities. Having participated in activities for a prolonged period, taken leadership roles, won awards, or otherwise been recognized for excellence are important factors that will also weigh into your overall profile as an applicant.

The most important determining factor in creating an effective college list is to critically analyze the strength of your application to get an honest idea of where you stand. 

Well-Rounded vs Spike

At highly-selective colleges, the amount of qualified applicants far exceeds the number of available spots. This is where the concept of holistic review plays a vital role. Schools that employ a holistic admissions process consider a variety of factors such as extracurricular activities, essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation in addition to your transcript and test scores.

You might have heard those top colleges look for “well-rounded” applicants. Here is the catch – remember, elite private schools want a well-rounded class. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to be well-rounded. In fact, selective schools want students with a couple of huge spikes.

If you are someone who has done a considerable number of activities outside the class but lacks a spike, you would be better off applying to large public universities.

Case Study

Assume you’re a member of an admissions committee. Applicants A and B both applied to your school to study political science, and both have impressive grades and test scores.

Applicant A is involved in every club under the sun. To their credit, they picked up a fair share of accolades and leadership titles along the way, but their application as a whole is a bit scattershot. If I asked you to explain what gets Applicant A out of bed every morning, you’d probably struggle to give me a cohesive answer.

Applicant B, on the other hand, is captain of the debate team, volunteered for several political campaigns, and helped organize a large student protest. Their personal essay discusses how they developed a more nuanced view of oppression in their community, while their letters of recommendation praise Applicant B for being a helpful, compassionate classmate.

Both students might have an equally outstanding list of accomplishments, but the “story” that Applicant B tells is much more compelling. You have a better understanding of who they are and what they would bring to your college. Applicant B’s application isn’t a perfectly round circle; it has a clear “spike,” which will likely give them the upper hand.

10 Considerations For Making Your College List

Size of the School

The size of a school is not a primary concern for some students and it isn’t the determining factor in how big it feels while you’re there. Large schools may have smaller class sizes in most upper-level courses. Yet, you may have just as much access to your professors. Usually, a larger school has far more resources than a smaller school, like a more extensive library or more-established tutoring available. Use the school size to help narrow your list as needed if it’s something that is important to you.

Campus Life

Another factor that may be very important to some students and less important to others is campus life. These factors might include dorms, dining halls, student life, or Greek life which is an important factor for some students. It means if you are interested in joining a fraternity or sorority, make sure to research the Greek life at the schools on your list.

You can also opt to live off-campus if schools allow it. You also need to find out if living off-campus is the norm or just a possibility. Once you have narrowed down your list you may consider visiting some campuses to get a thorough experience.


What you need to keep in mind while creating a college list is the geographical region you would like to attend. Many of you may not prefer to live too far away from home and if within driving distance, you may visit home if you feel homesick. The choice is entirely yours regarding places you’ve always wanted to experience like living in New York City or California.

Maybe you know you want to be near a sibling or your grandparents. Whatever the case may be, getting an idea of the specific region that you want to spend your college years in will help to immediately narrow down your list of colleges. These are just guidelines and once you receive your college acceptances you may decide on the region that suits you best.

While choosing your college and region think about whether you would prefer urban, suburban, or rural. If you choose an urban location, ask yourself if you are comfortable moving around in a big city all by yourself. But if you opt for suburban or rural, transportation will be difficult and you need to find out how you can manage that.

Also consider if you want to be near a body of water, the mountains, or lots of green space. If these are non-negotiable for you, you are another step closer to narrowing down your college list.

Department / Overall Ranking vs Subject Ranking

You will need to make sure that the colleges you apply to offer strong programs in your subject or areas of interest. Even if you don’t have a clear idea of what your exact major will be, you can still consider the possibilities. 

Look at which majors are available at different colleges in the areas you’re considering. Find out what course requirements exist and if certain programs require a separate application process.


Your final college list should consist of 2-3 safety schools, 3-5 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools. To create this list, you’ll need to understand how your application will place you among other applicants.

Fine-tuning the college list depends on the factors you considered when you took a critical look at your profile.  Your test scores should place you in the 75th percentile or above of admitted students’ test scores at your safety schools.

For target schools, your scores should place you around the 50th percentile, and for reach schools, your scores should place you at around the 25th percentile.

Schools with extremely competitive admissions — mean an acceptance rate of 15% or below — even having scores and a GPA in the 75th percentile doesn’t mean you can consider that school as a safe one or even a target school. All applicants, regardless of statistics, should consider these schools reach schools.


Extracurricular is another consideration as you compare schools and narrow your search and other resources that you might utilize in college. For some students, a strong religious or political presence on campus may be important. Whereas, others might look for a school with strong resources for LGBT students.

If you play a particular sport, you should excel in it and think about what level you’ll be able to compete at and consider whether it’s important enough to you to make it a defining aspect in your college search.

You might also consider art programs or foreign language clubs. Think about what interests you will want to pursue in college and see if the colleges you’re considering have programs in place to support them.


Finance is a big factor when it comes to studying abroad. For some, financial concerns are of the utmost importance, and for others, they are more of a peripheral issue. Whatever the case is for you, be sure to account for these considerations as you create your college list.

Public vs Private

Public universities are significantly cheaper than private ones. If you are not having a stellar profile, it’s better to target public universities.

In-State vs Out-of-State

While choosing a public university, you can save $10,000 – $20,000 per year if you choose to attend a public university within your state. Learn how you can qualify for in-state tuition as an out-of-state candidate.

Financial Aid

The Federal Student Aid site allows you to search for loans and scholarships, as well as estimate how much aid you can expect to receive. It also helps to frame your future career choices in the context of earning potential. Read How to Get Financial Aid for Undergrad Courses in USA as an International Student.

Availability of Internships and Jobs

You should take into account how much you can expect to earn with the degree you intend to pursue. You need to be certain that your intended career will lead to a salary that can support your student loans. 

Certain colleges will allow students to take internships at companies connected to the school as part of their coursework. This is very important as it will help you build your resume and can sometimes lead to jobs after college.

When making your college list, consider geography as it relates to the availability of internships relevant to your major. For example, if you are interested in business, you should consider schools in large cities such as New York or Boston. If you are interested in politics, you should think about going to school in Washington D.C.

Featured Image Source: Boston Magazine

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