How to Build Your College List

Comments Off on How to Build Your College List 30 August 2017

Building Your List

Finding colleges that are a good fit for you can seem daunting. After all, there are thousands of colleges and universities to choose from! But it is important that you narrow down these thousands of colleges into a manageable list of options to which you will apply. We recommend adding at least five colleges to your college list.

To help you narrow down the seemingly endless number of colleges into the 5-9 you’ll place on your college list, we’ve identified three major fit categories to take into consideration. Each of these categories should be met before deciding whether or not a college is worthy of your list.


Academic Fit

To determine if a college is a good academic fit, look for colleges that admit students who match your GPA and standardized test scores, as well as your personal and career interests. Each college publishes information about the 25th and 75th percentile ACT and SAT test scores among the students admitted to the college.

We also recommend that you submit your applications among three kinds of colleges:

Reach Schools — Your standardized test scores are either JUST at or slightly below the 75th percentile test scores for students accepted by the college or university.

Match Schools — Your standardized test scores fit within the 25th to 75th percentile test scores for students accepted by the college or university.

Safety Schools — Your standardized test scores are at or slightly above the 25th percentile test scores for students accepted by the college or university.

It’s easy to find colleges that fit these categories by checking the What Are My Chances Meter, which can be found next to every school you place in your college list on College Greenlight. Reach schools will rank low on the meter, match schools will rank in the middle, and safety schools will rank highly.

We recommend that your final college list include:

  • 1 – 2 Reach Schools
  • 3 – 5 Match Schools
  • 1 – 2 Safety Schools

At least one of the safety schools should be a financial aid safety school, which is a safety school where you could afford to enroll even if you got no financial aid.


If you’re worried your test scores don’t reflect your academic prowess, don’t fret! Many colleges have decided to go “test optional” in college admissions. includes a comprehensive list of test optional and test flexible colleges and universities.

You should also consider whether the college provides degree programs that match your academic interests. If you know what you want to major in, look at colleges that are strong in that field of study. But if you have no idea what you want to study, it’s just as important to choose a college with a wide range of degree programs to explore and eventually choose from.


Financial Fit

To determine if a college is a good financial fit, you’ll need to know a few important things.

First, you’ll have to decide how important financial aid is to your college plans. If you know your family will need significant assistance to help you afford college, then financial fit will be especially important to you.

Second, you’ll have to find out what your expected family contribution (EFC) is as determined by the FAFSA.  EFC refers to the amount your family is expected to contribute to your college costs. Here are a few tips you need to know to become an EFC expert.


You already know that filling out a FAFSA (Federal Application for Student Aid) is important. What you might not know is that your FAFSA is what determines your EFC! You need to fill out your FAFSA accurately and on time to make sure your EFC is calculated correctly.


Just like every snowflake is unique, so is every EFC. Your EFC is a number that is calculated based on a variety of factors, the most important of which are

Your parent’s income and assets
Your personal income and assets

If your parent’s make a lot of money and have a lot of assets (homes, retirement accounts, yachts), your EFC will be very high. The government and your college of choice will assume your family can cover most of your college costs. If they make less, the better the chance your EFC will be low and you will have access to more financial aid.


Say your EFC is 5,000. That means your family is expected to contribute 5,000 to your yearly college costs. Every college is going to have a different cost of attendance (COA) depending on how much you’ll spend on tuition, books, housing, and other factors. When you know your EFC and your college’s COA, you can easily calculate how much federal aid you are eligible for.

Note that some colleges meet the full demonstrated financial need and some do not. If a college does not meet full financial need, they will leave you with a gap of unmet need that you will have to pay in addition to the EFC.

Also, even if a college meets full demonstrated financial need, they may use student loans as part of the financial aid package to help meet that need. Loans spread out college costs over time. They do not cut college costs.

This is why it is important for you to focus on the net price of the college. The net price is the difference between total college costs and just the gift aid. The gift aid is grants and scholarships and other money that does not need to be repaid. The net price is the amount you will actually have to pay to cover college costs.

Third, it’s important to remember that the prices you might see listed of the colleges or universities you want to attend are not the price you will pay. Many students get discouraged by the high sticker prices at competitive private colleges, and decide they won’t even try applying there. This is a huge mistake because sometimes the colleges with the highest sticker prices offer the lowest net prices to students who don’t have a lot of money. Think of the net price as the discounted sticker price.

That’s why you need to start using a net price calculator.

A net price calculator is a tool that estimates what a college will cost you based on your family income, scholarship information, and other factors. Every college is required to have a net price calculator on its web site. Net price calculators are free to use.

The U.S. Department of Education provides a web site that can help you find each college’s net price calculator. Be sure to bookmark this link. It lets you type in the name of any college in the country, and will take you directly to the college’s net price calculator.


Social Fit

Social fit refers to how a college matches your unique personality and goals. To determine if a college is a good social fit, here are seven different categories to consider when evaluating a campus:


Learning Environment

Consider factors like a college’s average class size, student-to-teacher ratios and whether classes are taught mainly by full-time professors, part-time adjuncts or graduate assistants. Do you learn better through discussions or through hands-on activity? A smaller student-faculty ratio will yield a more personal learning experience. All of these are factors which will affect the quality of your education.

Campus Life

What do you want your college experience to be like outside of the classroom? Think about what’s important to you in terms of extracurricular activities, social life, school spirit and traditions and housing options. You will spend more time with your peers than sitting in a classroom, listening to lectures.

Distance from Home

Decide how far from home you want your college experience to take you. Do you want to have the support of friends and family nearby, or experience life in an entirely new part of the country?


Do you see yourself attending college in a small town where the campus is the center of activity, or a major metropolitan area where you’ll enjoy the benefits of city living? Also decide if you want to be in a certain geographic area or climate. Do you prefer sunshine or cloudy days? Surf or snow?


A tiny liberal arts college and a huge state university will give you two very different college experiences. Visit colleges at both ends of the size spectrum and a few somewhere in the middle to see where you feel most comfortable.


When you visit each college, eat at least one meal in the cafeteria. Most colleges require students who live on campus to pay for a meal plan. If you don’t like the food the first time you try it, you will hate it by the time you graduate.


Do you want a college where you’ll be surrounded by students similar to yourself, or one where you’ll meet people from a variety of backgrounds? As a College Greenlight student, you should have a unique and exciting story to share. Why not consider a college with a student body as unique as you are? Plus, if your cultural, religious, or ethnic identity is a huge part of your life, make sure your campus has programs in place that celebrate that identity. Try to find a college that has a critical mass of students like you.



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