College list

Picking Colleges: The Importance of a Balanced College List

How do families make a college list? How do you decide what colleges to apply to? Jeff Selingo, one of our favorite writers who observes the world of college admissions, is the author of Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. One of his quotes caught our eye:

The more time teenagers spend making sure their college list has a mix of schools on it, as well as think about the academic, social, and financial fit of each of them, the better off they’ll be at the end of the process.

Too often, families get stuck in a rut. They put the “familiar” schools on their list. Jeff points out that the applicant pool at these popular, selective schools is getting deeper and deeper making acceptances rates (your chance of getting in) sink lower and lower.

With thousands of colleges in the US, why do students end up applying to the same 20 schools?!

What do we mean by “selective” or “highly rejective” schools?

Selective or highly rejective schools are ones with a large number of applicants and a small percentage of acceptances. Of course, the list includes the big names that come first to mind like Harvard and Stanford. The list also includes colleges like Vanderbilt, Duke, UCLA, Penn State, University of North Carolina, University of Michigan, and others.

Michigan received over 84,000 applications for their Fall 2022. They enrolled just over 7,000. Vanderbilt had over 46,000 applicants and admitted 3,093. Duke received over 35,000 applications and accepted 3,189.

Does “selective” mean better?

Not necessarily. Don’t get us wrong. These are quality schools. However, acceptance rates are a reflection of the number of applicants vs the number of open spaces at a college.

The problem families run into is that they have blinders on to all the colleges that are out there, and they don’t understand how to make a college list that fits their child’s academic, social, and financial needs.

Colleges LOVE having a low acceptance rate, and they practically brag about it. Families assume that because they are more selective that means they are better.

The heavy marketing many schools do is really a way to drive more kids to apply, which feeds the monster. The number of seats in a college’s freshman class generally does not change from year to year. As more students apply and colleges accept a set number, the acceptance rate goes down. Families believe that higher selectivity makes them better, and even MORE kids apply. It’s a cycle–round and round and round.

What we don’t want to see is a college list without balance.

Families believe that one of these selective colleges will accept their child. Their child is amazing and bright. They absolutely deserve to go to one of them! (We agree.) Then they receive deferrals, waitlists, and rejections, and their student is crushed. We see it every year.

So, what should a family do?

First, be aware of each college’s acceptance rate. Don’t be afraid to include those selective colleges on your list, but be sure to include colleges that have higher acceptance rates as well. The average college acceptance rate in the United States is 68%, with more than half of all U.S. colleges and universities reporting rates of 67% or higher. Read that again. More than half of all U.S. colleges have acceptance rates over 67%. Don’t limit your list to those with acceptance rates in the single digits.

Second, we want students to feel more empowered in this process. When you don’t know HOW to look at the wide range of schools out there, you can revert to the “these are the schools I’ve heard of” list.

Students need to think about the experience they want from college, the “why they are going,” and their goals for after college. This thinking can help craft the criteria that can really drive YOUR college search.

We often tell families that a college-bound student has three big decisions to consider toward the end of high school:

  • picking a college (yep, this is where we will drop them off!)
  • picking a major (because you’ll spend about half of your educational time and effort in this arena)
  • picking a career/first job role (because ever so quickly, you’ll be interviewing for that first job).

Of those three, it’s so easy to focus on the college. The college will tell you what they want you to hear, but that message is not tailored to your child’s needs. This method can result in frustration.

Instead, we recommend that you step back, learn how to consider what’s important to YOU, and have frank and honest discussions about college and its outcomes. (If thinking about that first career is a challenge, you should consider our Guided Self Assessment service.)

How do you build a balanced college list? What criteria are important to consider?

With thousands of colleges to choose from, how does a family not only craft a list of criteria to guide them, but also use that criteria to create a balanced list of “just right” schools?

We have crafted a 90-minute webinar to helps parents and students look beyond those name brand schools to create a balanced, well-thought-out list of colleges that fit academically, socially, and financially.

Click to find the next presentation of our “College Research: Conducting an Effective Search with Online Tools” program.

In addition to other criteria like size, distance, etc., we want you to think about how college major and money play into the creation of your list. We’ll demonstrate our favorite free online search tools and how each can be used most effectively. You’ll leave knowing how to take the next steps, right now, and avoid the trap of the “same 20 schools” list.

Families have said:

Run, don’t walk to get this boost of information that will save you hours of time and frustration.

We were feeling overwhelmed on how to research colleges- there are so many! Now, with what we learned we have a plan and feel like we know what we need to do and how to do it!

We encourage parents to watch with their students. This message about creating a balanced college list is critical for them to hear!

We’ll close with another quote from Jeff:

Look up and out beyond the top 10 or 20 or whatever in the rankings. Use the college search as a learning experience. The students I met who ended up being most satisfied with their final choice were the ones who embraced the ambiguity of the process rather than got fixated on one or two schools.


Original 10/2020
Updated 3/2023

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