The biggest part of applying to colleges (besides those excruciating 3 months of waiting for acceptances), is actually doing the research on colleges you’re thinking of applying to. There are almost 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States, and I know for fact you will need help narrowing those down (unless of course, you’re applying to all four thousand, which in case, wow, good luck with those essays). But actually doing the research can be so boringgg and time consuminggg and stressful.
So as a somewhat general guide/timeline, I’ve put together all the resources I used and steps I took to compile my (still-changing) final college application list.
Now, I started really early. Like, freshman year early. But I am also weird and overly enthusiastic about applying to college so please don’t go crazy. I’d say junior year is a good year to really get started with the research process, and double down on it in the summer before application season so you can finalize that list as you are filling out the general sections of the Common App. I also did a lot a lot a lot of research. Like much more than necessary (I just like to be thorough). At this point, I could probably write my projected schedule for the next 4 years in college for any one of the schools I am applying to. So this craziness might come off a bit too much in this post, but remember, this is what I did, your process might look different.
But without further ado, let’s get started.
1. Set a boundary (geographically)
Are you open to going anywhere in the entire US of A? Alaska? Hawaii (I can’t imagine how unproductive I would be if I went to a school in Hawaii)? West coast? East coast? Your home state?
Set this geographic boundary first, but don’t constrict yourself unless you are sure. This is the best way to narrow down schools, but it also prevents you from finding maybe the perfect school later on. So be realistic with yourself in how far from home you’re willing to go. Allow yourself maybe 2-3 outside the boundary schools if you really, really like them.
My boundary was the East Coast. No matter how much my mom loved Stanford, I was not gonna go there, so no point in applying. And within the East coast, my boundary started to shrink as I got closer to applying, and I capped it off at Massachusetts and Virginia, about 7ish hours either way. My exception to the boundary was University of Michigan, but then when I really started to think about it, I realized that even if I got in, I honestly don’t think I would go.
2a. Look at US News rankings
I know, I know, I’m shallow and prideful and all that, but I really believe in rankings of schools - they got there for a reason - so I turned to the US News World Report college rankings. This was my strategy going in: my ultimate safety school is my state school, Rutgers, and I didn’t want to go to a school ranked lower than Rutgers (which is #70 in the US). So I looked at schools from #1 to #70 and put them into a doc. For me, this range worked, because I knew my test scores/GPA didn’t “rule out” any school for me. But try being realistic in this process. Aside from your reaches, define a boundary and search within those rankings. And if you feel like you don’t know where to start with this step, start with 2b. Or skip this one entirely. This is your college search, not mine.
2b. Look at Collegeboard’s BigFuture
This is a college search software that I definitely recommend. It has tons of filters and has access to tons of data. The first time I used it though, I think I was a little too stringent with my requirements and no kidding, the only school that matched all of my preferences was Princeton. (It’s a sign that Princeton should accept me.) I found this both hilarious and a little sad. But anyway, I realized I had just put my filters to “Must Have” instead of “Want”, which was removing a lot of schools. After you make sure your filters and preferences are as you like them, add all of these schools to that doc as well, making a master list. (Be aware, try to make your preferences strict enough that you only get about 2-3 pages of new colleges, you don’t want to look through a hundred.)
2c. Look at CollegeXpress
This was a resource I found really late in the game, but luckily I was still able to make some use of it. I found it through resources from CollegeEssayGuy (who is also someone I recommend checking out).
Anyway, I don’t really recommend their “college search” part of the website (although maybe it’s worth a breeze through) but the best resource is actually their lists of colleges. They have lists on almost everything, and some are the most random but surprisingly helpful. What I recommend is going through a bunch of lists that apply to you in different tabs, and seeing which colleges start to appear in most of them. Add these colleges to your list.
3. Start paring it down.
So, at this point, I had a lot of schools. Now begins the actual hard part.
I first deleted everything that wasn’t in my geographic boundary. Bye, UChicago, Stanford, and Northwestern. Most of the rest of the schools on my list were generally in my preferences, but there were a lot (that came straight from the US News rankings) that were not good fits. So I deleted schools I knew off the bat didn’t fit my preferences.
Luckily for me, I am very well aware of what I want to major in in college. If a school does not have a neuroscience related major, I will not be going. So a relatively easy way to cut down for me was simply deleting all the schools that didn’t have my major. And even if it had the major, I wanted the neuro department to be at least somewhat good, so I used neuroscience rankings to weed out the ones that had the major, but no real program.
Of course, if you don’t have a major in mind, it’s a little harder to cut the list down further, but search for schools that at least have the direction you want to go into, and see if they have a good selection of majors available in that area of study. (For example, Princeton is not great for kids who know they want to do something bio related but don’t know what, because there are only 3 biologically related majors.)
I would recommend getting down to at least 30 schools with all of this cutting down, but if you really feel like you can’t, move on to the next step - it just might be a little more time consuming.
At this point, I had like 25ish schools, which I think was quite an effective cutting down process.
*General note* From here on out, at any point I came upon a school that I hadn’t considered before, or that I had cut before but was now reconsidering, I added it to my list. Then I went through the thorough research process for that school as well, as if it was always on my list.
4. Start your research by making a spreadsheet
With those 20-30 schools, start a spreadsheet where you will now accumulate more data on each individual school. Here’s where the process might differ for a lot of people. At this point, you have to pick what matters to you most in choosing a school, and make those the titles of different columns in your spreadsheet.
For example, here’s my spreadsheet now:
Here’s what I had in the beginning (I went really ham with this, but I think 10 or so columns should be sufficient): intended major, US News rank, acceptance rate (or out of state acceptance rate if it was applicable), miles from home, undergraduate enrollment, graduate student enrollment, if they were on the common app, their 6 year graduation rate, their retention rate (what percentage of freshmen return for their sophomore year), cost of attendance, average financial aid, my realistic chance of getting in, and the type of school that it is for me (reach, safety, etc).
That should be a good enough list to start you off. Obviously, some stuff won’t matter to you, like maybe you don’t care about distance or graduate enrollment (I cared about the latter it because those with less graduate students are more likely to give research opportunities to undergrads, something I’m looking for). I’ll elaborate on the “realistic chance to get in” later.
5. Now actually do the research
This is when you take time, a lot of time (it took me like 2-3 hours per college) to one by one fill out all of the columns for each college.
There’s a ton of resources out there for this. The most important thing is to get each piece of data for all the colleges from the same source, to avoid discrepancy (by this I mean: for retention rate, get the value for each college from the same place, which might be a different place you get your acceptance rate value). If that makes sense.
I used US News for some things, Cappex for others, Collegedata for a lot of them. And of course, the school’s own website for some. Prepscholar is also a place to look, especially if you’re looking for SAT/ACT score percentiles (something I recommend putting in your spreadsheet as well).
As you fill out your spreadsheet for your college, go through the college website, especially the programs you’re interested in pursuing. For me, I spent forever just looking through the neuro major websites, looking at possible skeleton schedules, major requirements, testimonials, where people ended up.
Another important thing to look at while on the college website is the graduation requirements. Some colleges have more general education requirements, while some are completely open curriculum. I, personally, love ones with less requirements, because I really want to take as many neuro classes as possible, and ideally have one or two minors in languages.
6. Determine your chance
Be honest with yourself. Realize the group of people you are competing against is literally the whole world. And be realistic. Definitely, any college with a less than 10% acceptance rate should be listed as a reach, I don’t care who you are and what disease you found the cure for. You can try to ballpark your chance, but I recommend using online resources.
There are a lot of websites out there that give you your “chance of getting in” a specific college. Originally, I was using Collegedata and its rough idea of maybe vs. good bet. Later, I found Parchment, which gives a much more specific number in terms of chancing. Using a lot of information you input into the software (try to fill in as much as possible), it gives you the percentage of your acceptance. I think the numbers are slightly inflated though - like right now it’s giving me a 20% chance at Princeton and a 45% chance at Johns Hopkins, which I don’t necessarily agree with. But even if the numbers are not exactly very accurate, it’s a great tool for comparing your chances among the colleges you’re planning to apply to, and it sort of puts them into perspective. And you can use this to divide your colleges into safety, match, and reach.
7. Take a holistic look at your spreadsheet
Once you finish inputting in all your information for all the colleges, step back and take a wide angle approach to each college on your list. Eliminate ones with red flags, like maybe their graduation rate is incredibly low, or you didn’t realize how small of a school it was or something like that.
Then I recommend working within the groups of admittance chance. Focus on your reaches first. Try to narrow those down to 4-6 schools. Same for your target and safety schools. If you can do that, awesome, you’re practically done! If it’s just too hard, start finding current students to talk to, or at least people you know that applied. Ask them why they applied, why they’re going (or chose not to go), questions about the culture. Maybe even browse through College Confidential (don’t trust it too much though, a lot of the posts are from 10+ years ago, and the people who post on there are usually on either end of the extreme). Regardless, keep working on your list, keep looking further into the colleges, you might find something else that sways you one way or the other.
Normal people usually do this towards the beginning of their college search. Which is awesome, definitely go do that, especially if you know that campus environment and culture is going to be a big factor in choosing whether to attend. For me, I’m not the type to care as much about the feel of the campus, so I haven’t really worried about visiting yet. (In fact, I’ve still only visited Princeton. Multiple times.) I’ll probably end up going towards the end of August, maybe even during the school year if I can. Either that, or I might only visit if I get in. I don’t know. My only point is, is that sometimes for certain people a visit is not going to make it or break it. A college campus is a college campus, the food is going to be terrible regardless.
9. You’re done! Hopefully
Well, that was all I did for my college search. I managed to get it down to 11 schools, which is actually maybe too few. I’ll see if after I apply, any other college catches my eye, or if I feel up for writing more essays, and I might apply to 1 or 2 more. But I can legitimately say that I would be 100% willing to go to all of the colleges on my list right now. That is the ultimate goal of a college list. You should ask yourself, if I got in, would I really go here? Ideally, even the safest of your safeties should garner an affirmative response to this question. Remember, this where you will be living for the next 4 years of your life. And also remember, YOU will be living there, not your parents or your friends or your teachers. Accept advice and guidance, but use it carefully.
10. Apply! Good luck!
And as always, thanks for reading!