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How to Narrow Down Your List of Colleges

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how to narrow down your college listChoosing your list of colleges is one of the most important admissions decisions you will make. With thousands of schools to choose from, this decision can be a tough one! Check out these pointers from our experts to help you find the right college for you.

Consider the Cost

Frank Palmasani, Author of Right College, Right Price: The New System for Discovering the Best College Fit at the Best Price

When narrowing down your college options, it is critical to consider the net price of your schools in order to avoid taking on excessive debt. Here are some steps that could lead you to an affordable group of college options:

1. Calculate the amount your family can afford to spend on college.

Your family might consider factors such as your tax credit, existing savings, or costs that are eliminated once you leave for college (i.e. costs for athletic activities or lessons). To perform a thorough, automatic calculation, check out the College Affordability Calculator in the Financial Fit® program.

2. Use net price calculators.

Check the net price calculators on each school’s website to calculate the cost of the school with financial aid estimates, room and board, and other factors considered.

3. Discuss your options.

Talk with your family about your college options and which of the schools from this group are in line with what you can afford.

Remember, there are always two backup categories if you can’t find any affordable options: the commuting option and the community college option. Keep these in mind when narrowing down your list of schools to around 4 to 6 options.

Take control of your college costs.

Check out the Financial Fit® program to calculate what you can afford and find the schools that fit your budget!

learn more about the financial fit program

Understand Your Chances

Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, Author of adMISSION POSSIBLE: The “Dare to Be Yourself” Guide for Getting into the Best Colleges for You

An important factor in narrowing down a college list is determining your chances for getting accepted as a student. Three pieces of information will provide you with a good “guesstimate” of whether a college is in the right admissions “ballpark.”

1. GPA

Colleges want to know about your GPA and the rigor of the classes you have taken. In assessing your chances for getting accepted to a school, first take a look at how your GPA matches that of previously accepted students. This information is usually available on colleges’ websites in the admissions section called “Profile of Recent Admits.”


You can also check the “Profile of Recent Admits” to get some sense of how your SAT or ACT test scores compare to those of previously accepted students. You are likely to find that colleges report “middle 50 percent test scores,” or “mean” scores for both the SAT and ACT. If your test scores are within the middle 50 percent range, then you are in the “ballpark” of accepted students. If they are above, you might even hit an admissions home run—getting accepted!


A college’s acceptance rate is the ratio of students who are admitted compared to the total number of students who apply. Regardless of your GPA and test scores, the lower a college’s acceptance rate, the more difficult it will be to get accepted. Acceptance rates can be found on individual college admissions websites and in college guides, such as the Fiske Guide to Colleges.

Get a Feel for the Campus

Edward B. Fiske, Author of Fiske Guide to Colleges

When I first sat down to write the first edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges 30 years ago I had a major editorial fear: Once I had described the 17th small liberal arts college in Indiana as a place where caring faculty members “often invited students to their home for dinner,” would the schools all begin to sound the same? If so, that would make for some pretty boring reading.

Not to worry.

It turns out that U.S. colleges and universities—even those that look the same at first glance—have distinct campus cultures and institutional personalities. They are as different from each other as are the students in their applicant pools. It is up to the student to decide which schools would be a good “fit” for his or her particular interests, needs, aspirations, and learning styles. Picking a list of colleges to apply to is a “matching process.”

The first step to finding a good “cultural fit” is usually to establish an appropriate level of academic selectivity and to identify your list of schools based on fundamental criteria such as public versus private, size, and distance from home. Then focus on the following areas:

  • Academic ClimateAre faculty members accessible and supportive?
  • Campus LifeDo you have to join a fraternity or sorority to have a decent social life?
  • Student BodyAre these people I want to spend four years with?

Evaluate Your Options

Anna Costaras and Gail Liss, Authors of The College Bound Organizer

With over 2,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. there’s more than one perfect school for you. To narrow down your list, it’s a good idea to get organized. Consider the criteria that are most important to you. Go back and sort through, by school, the notes you took and information you collected during your research.

Create a checklist to help you evaluate your options. List your potential schools by rows and write the criteria most important to you along the top. Think about including academic programs and rigor, location, distance, student body personality, and extracurricular activities. Don’t forget to include affordability as well as standardized test requirements and ranges.

Once you’ve made your checklist, mark the attributes you’re looking for in each school. Use information from college websites, info sessions, campus visits, and conversations you’ve had with current students and alumni. Also, use online resources such as college search tools, open discussions, rankings, interactive tools, and resources provided by your high school. Eliminate the schools that don’t match up with your requirements and you’ll have your final list.

Need help with your college admissions process?

We’ve got experts for every step of the way! Check out the College Countdown store for help with choosing a college, test prep, applications, and more.

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