How to Create a Balanced College List for US College Admissions?

US has a few thousand colleges with 2-year and 4-year degree programs. If you are looking at applying to U.S. colleges for your undergraduate degree, M.S. degree, or M.B.A. degree, the challenge is always which colleges to apply to. No student can apply to more than 18-20 colleges, with the majority of students applying to 10-12 colleges, the challenge always is to bring the shortlist down to these 10-15 colleges. So, how to create a balanced college list while applying to US colleges?

How to Create a Balanced College List for US College Admissions
Image Source: Great Schools

The college shortlist decision is a little bit easier for students who are U.S. residents as they focus more on in-state colleges as the fees, and cost of these colleges outweigh the benefits of going somewhere, not to mention the benefits of staying close to your family. This may not be true if you are applying for M.B.A.

How to Create a Balanced College List for US College Admissions

If you are an international student, the college shortlist becomes a big challenge and task as you not only have at least 100+ or so colleges to choose from in the U.S., but you also have the option of applying to Canada, Europe, and Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. All these countries have an amazing number of good colleges and it is up to the student and family where to apply.

If you are an international student applying to U.S. colleges, here is how you should go about selecting your colleges. Here is a simple way to approach the college list development process.

Please note this is a very simple and directional approach as many other factors will go into your college shortlist decision and focused on the top 100-125 colleges in the US across public universities, private liberal arts colleges and national universities.

GPA and Test Score match (Basic Criteria): Look at your GPA and test scores and find out the colleges where you are in the top 75% of the range of previous admits.

Segment the list: First start to build a tentative list of 18-20 colleges and bring it down to a list of 10-12 colleges based on other factors. Among your final list of 10-12 colleges, you should have 4 colleges as “Dream school (Chances of admission is less than 5%), 4 colleges in Target (chances of admission is 20-40%), and maybe 2-3 in safety (chances of admission is 40-75%). Have at least 75% of the colleges on your list as aspirational and high targets….it is better to be aggressive than play defense.

However, be realistic in your aspirational college list to make sure they are within reach. I have seen a number of parents and students applying to Ivy League colleges without being in the top 25% of their class or having some sort of “spike” in their profile.

Aspirational aka Dream/Reach Colleges (Ambitious Category)

(Within 50-75% of GPA/Score range for the college and colleges with less than 20% of Admit rate – you have to be in the range of admits):

Colleges where your score is within 50-75% percentile, those colleges are your dream, reach, or aspirational colleges. Select a few of them based on location, your family/friends, job prospects/local industry, weather, and size. Another important factor is the overall budget you are looking to spend on education in case you do not get aid. Definitely have 1-2 colleges where you aspired to go and have some chance of getting in (cannot be Stanford, Harvard, MIT etc. if your scores are too low).

You just might get in. A strong application with the majority of requirements for admission exceeding the mark may make up for one area that falls short. You might also fall into that demographic the school is looking for to round out their freshman class. 

Target Colleges (Moderate Category)

(Within the top 50% of admit score range and colleges with 20-40% Admit rates):

Colleges, where you are in the top 50% of the admit profile and the colleges still have low admission rates (selecting 1 in 3 students) can be your target schools. It is not easy to get into these colleges but you have a good chance based on your score and hopefully your profile. It is still very important to have a good story, essays, LORs etc. but you have 1 in 3 chances to get admitted.

These are the schools you shouldn’t need to sweat about. Your target schools should be places you really want to go, and the ones you should be fairly confident you will be accepted into.

However, in some cases, even if your profile is equal to or even greater than that of the average admit, you should still consider the school a reach. This is true primarily for extremely competitive schools, such as the Ivy Leagues and Elite Schools like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.

Safety Colleges (Safe/Likely Category)

(Top 25% in scores and 40-50% admit rate):

Colleges, where you are in the top 25% of the admit score and with admission rates of anywhere from 30-50% of students become your safety.

Bet on a School as a Safety if you feel very confident about your chances of getting accepted, you wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell people about it, and you would genuinely enjoy attending that college.

how to make a college list while applying to US colleges

There are a number of other factors that go into the college shortlist decision such as program applying to, budget/scholarship, size of school, family & friends, diversity, weather, job prospects etc.

Read: What do Top Colleges Look for in International Students

Some colleges may have higher admit rate for International students and some of the top colleges have a far lower admit rate for International students given limited seats and number of applications.

If you want to get more help on your college shortlist and want to speak with one of Stoodnt team members, please send an email to or

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