How to Create the Perfect College List

Given the unprecedented competition for college admission, many students think that they should apply to 20, 25, even 30 colleges to boost their chances of winning admission to college. While that looks like a smart strategy—the more colleges you apply to the more you up your chances—it’s not.


There’s simply not enough time to do your best work.

Creating a balanced list is more important than the number of colleges you apply to.

Think of it this way. In order to write a persuasive and memorable Common Application essay, a student needs time to create her personal brand, figure out how to market that brand across all application documents, and learn how to write personally, convincingly, and with animation. If that sounds like a lot, it is. In addition, the supplemental essays require the same amount of time and careful attention. If we consider that most colleges require applicants to write two to four (and sometimes six) supplemental essays, if a student chooses to apply to 30 colleges, she is potentially going to have to write 180 top-notch supplemental responses. At best, she’s only facing 60.

See what I mean?

A better strategy is to create a well-balanced and personally meaningful list of colleges that offers a student a chance at admission to her reach schools and ensures her admission to others.

At WCP, we typically recommend creating a college list that includes 10 to 12 and, in some exceptional cases, 15 colleges. The list should be comprised of an equal number of target schools, reach schools, and likely schools. For example, if your child chooses to apply to 12 colleges, we recommend:

4 target schools (those where your child’s GPA and ACT/SAT score is somewhere between the 50th and 75th percentile of admitted students)

4 reach schools (those where your child’s GPA and ACT/SAT score falls between the 25th and 50th percentile of admitted students)

4 safety schools (those where your child’s GPA and ACT/SAT score exceeds the 75th percentile of admitted students)

Two Notes:

  1. Should your student have her heart set on a college where her GPA and ACT/SAT score places her below the 25th percentile of admitted students, we would encourage your child to apply, but in the knowledge that it is highly unlikely that she will be admitted into that college.

All students applying to highly selective colleges – those with acceptance rates below 10% (and they include Harvard University, Cal Tech, Columbia University, Princeton University, Stanford University, Yale University, Brown University, University of Chicago, Brown, MIT, Julliard, and Curtis Institute of Music) — should consider these elite colleges reaches or even far reaches. It’s simply a matter of numbers. (Keep in mind, however, as you begin to make your list, that an exceptional extra-curricular profile and outstanding essays will help boost your child’s admissions chances.)

What else to consider? Majors.

Not all colleges offer all majors, and even universities within the same tier offer significantly different majors, programs, and opportunities. For example, both Cornell and Dartmouth are prestigious Ivy League universities. However, if your child is interested in studying agriculture science, Cornell may be the better choice because they offer a major in Agricultural Sciences; Dartmouth doesn’t.

Next? Consider special programs offered by each college.

Many colleges, for example, offer cultural studies degrees, but almost all offer programs within the degree concentration with different foci. For example, if your child is interested in Irish studies and culture with a view toward possibly teaching at an Irish university, Notre Dame, because of its Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies is probably a better choice than than say Georgetown and other colleges that do not offer such a specialized program.

Also, if your child has a learning disability/difference and will be appealing for accommodations at college, make sure to scrutinize the disability services program offerings to make sure that your child will receive the modifications needed.

What else? Financing.

According to The College Board, between 2007-2008 and 2017-2018, the cost of college rose by 26% at private nonprofit four-year colleges, 37% at public four-year colleges, and 32% at public two-year colleges, after adjusting for inflation.


In other words, we recommend that your family have an honest conversation about how the cost of college will be paid. If the options available for paying for a college with a high sticker price are unacceptable to a family there’s no sense applying to that college.

One note:

Before you write off applying to the Ivy League schools and other top-ticket colleges for fear that you can’t afford it, think about this: Public universities generally cost less than private colleges, but the most selective private colleges, which tend have the highest endowments, also tend to meet the greatest percentage of financial need for families. So if your child is interested in applying to an Ivy League college but you fear the cost, you might want to reconsider.


What else to consider? Location and size.

A lot of students with whom we work find the idea of living in a big city for four years intolerable, while just as many know they would be unhappy in “the sticks” for four years. When helping your child build her list, ask her if she wants to attend a school in a big city or rural area. (You may want to visit one of each to help your child make this decision.)

Also, encourage your child to answer the following questions frankly:

  • Would you like to live in a cold weather or warm weather setting?
  • How near to the family do you want to be?
  • Does size matter to you? For many students, size is a very important consideration. Many fear the impersonality that comes with attending a college of 30,000 or more; others feel that a smaller college, say 8000 or less, would feel claustrophobic.

Finally? The prestige factor.

While I tend to agree with Freud who once defined prestige as a dominating force that paralyzes the critical faculties, it would be cavalier to dismiss the importance of prestige or a college’s rank, for some families. Many families with whom I work view their child’s college years as an opportunity for a child to develop personally and intellectually. For these families, a college’s rank or prestige is less important than ways that a college might be able to enrich their child at this particular moment in her life journey. Others view college more as a way of securing training for a career, a powerful brand name for their child’s resume, possibly higher earnings potential, and even an opportunity to begin to build a family legacy. There’s no right or wrong here, and the decision is highly personal.

If you’re struggling to come up with the right list for you call me! I’m always ready to help you.


Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.