How to Build a College List? 30 Questions to Help You

“Where do you want to go to college?”

This seemingly simple question can elicit reactions from boredom to bewilderment to full-blown panic attack. While some students identified their “dream school” in early on, others don’t even know where to begin.

If you are the oldest child, or in the first generation to go to college in your family, figuring out where to go can be overwhelming. On the other hand, if you are the youngest sibling, or have legacies at multiple universities, the pressure and unsolicited “advice” from family members can feel overbearing.

So, how can you quiet the noise and find schools that could be a great fit for YOU?

Start by answering some questions. Your answers will help narrow down your choices. Once you’ve identified your preferences, you can start researching schools that fit your criteria and begin making a solid list.

Pro Tip: Cast a Wide Net.
Ideally, you want to build a broad list of schools (shoot for 15 to 30 schools to start. You will continue to narrow this list as you research and visit schools).

And be sure to include schools that cover a range of admissions acceptance rates. Colleges range from those that accept 4% of applicants to those that accept over 80% of applicants, and everything in between.

And admissions is quite simply, unpredictable. So, even if you are #1 in your class, don’t build a college list that contains only Ivy League schools. Of course, you can shoot for your dream school. But balance your college list with schools that are a bit of a “reach” for you, those that you are “likely” to get into, and a few that are “safe” bets.

Here is a list of questions to help you get started. If you don’t know the answer to a question, skip it and go to the next question. Even if you can only answer a few of the questions, it will still help you narrow your list.


What do you want to study?
If you are positive you want to study something very specific, such as nursing, physical therapy, or engineering, that can go a long way to narrowing your search. If you’re not sure, schools that have a lot of options or that allow you to apply without declaring a major might be good options.

Is research important to you?
If so, in what area (science, tech, humanities?

Are you interested in gaining a lot of work experience during college?
Look into schools with co-op programs.


How far do you want to be from home?
Do you want to be within driving distance from home?
Do you mind flying back and forth for holidays, etc?
Do you want to do a particular sport/activity that depends on geography or accessibility?
For example, skiing, sailing, rowing crew, mountain biking, etc.


Do you want a city/urban environment?
Do you want a campus near, but not in, a major city?
Would you prefer a campus that is more remote or where life in the town revolves around the campus?
Would you like a traditional (centralized) campus?
Are you ok with a campus that is spread out across a city or town?
Do you have specific requirements for housing?


Do you want a campus with Greek life?
Fraternities and sororities can be the center of the social scene at a college, a side activity/option, or non-existent. Which sounds most appealing to you?

Do you want to AVOID a campus with Greek life?
Do you prefer a more studious environment?
Are you looking for a more creative culture/environment?
Do you want “big time” sports teams at your college?
How important is diversity to your college experience?
Are you looking for highly competitive academic clubs?


Do you want to play a sport at the collegiate level?

If you WANT to play a sport in college . . . 
· Are you aiming for a DI program? Or are you happy to play for a DII or DIII program?
· Do the schools that have your sport also have the major/field of study you want?

Do you want to play a specific sport at the CLUB level?


This is an area where many students want something different than their norm. For example, some students who grew up in Southern California are eager to experience the “four seasons” that schools in the Northeastern US can offer. While some students from the Northeast are eager to escape from a frigid winter. Climate preferences can really narrow a list.

Do you want a warm or temperate climate?
Do you want to experience 3 distinctly different seasons during the school year?
Do you want to have snow in the winter?


Some students prefer the anonymity that comes with a big school environment, while others crave a smaller, tight-knit community feel, and still others strive for something in the middle. No matter your preferences, there are a lot of options

Here are a few questions that can help illuminate the size of school in which you might thrive:

Are you drawn to a particular size of school?
How do you best learn? Lecture? Hands-on? Discussion?
Are you ok taking a class in a huge lecture hall?
Are you prepared to advocate for yourself if necessary? 

At a big school you will need to be more self-directed and able to advocate for yourself.

How much guidance do you prefer from advisors, teachers, mentors?
Smaller schools may allow you to foster closer relationships with faculty/staff.
After you answer as many of these questions as you can, you should start to see a vision of the type of schools that could be a good fit for you.

For more guidance on building your college list and finding that “right fit” college, reach out to our experts at Elite Collegiate Planning, our college planning division, at 610-422-3530.

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