7 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Your School List

Padya Paramita

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Your School List

You will be spending four years at your undergraduate institution. It’s actually extremely important that you only apply to colleges that interest you and where you could see yourself being happy. There are several factors to consider, from location to majors offered. It’s crucial that you cover all of your bases and make sure that you don’t make any mistakes while making your school list

When you’re researching colleges, it’s important to think about college fit and whether you and the school are a good match for each other. You shouldn’t just apply somewhere all of your friends are applying. You shouldn’t only apply to the top 10 ranked schools either. To help, I’ve outlined 7 mistakes you must avoid when making your school list.

Applying Only Based on Rankings

One of the most common mistakes that students make as they come up with their list of colleges is focusing only on schools at the top of the US News or other ranking systems. Sure, Ivy League universities are great schools—but they are also highly selective. The competition at most top colleges is only getting tougher, so it is not wise to only apply to the most prestigious and well-known universities. It’s important to make a balanced school list. 

Colleges on your list will fit into one of three tiers: reach, target, and safety. Reach schools are schools that might be difficult for you to get into because they are extremely selective or because you fall below the average range for enrolled freshmen. These colleges often are what many applicants consider “dream schools,” and are the most competitive. Target schools are those that meet your own numbers—this list of schools is entirely subjective, depending on your GPA and SAT score. Target schools don’t guarantee admission either, as a lot of factors are considered beyond your grades. Don’t take them for granted. Schools are defined as “safety” if your academic credentials are above the average range for admitted freshmen. This doesn’t always mean you’re a shoo-in either, but it’s good to cover your back and keep your options open.

Ignoring Liberal Arts Colleges 

When making your school list, you must look at all kinds of colleges—including both national universities and liberal arts colleges. Many students write off liberal arts colleges as they have smaller campuses and student populations. While liberal arts schools aren’t for everyone, many of them do offer strong departments and wonderful facilities across various fields, even STEM. Liberal arts colleges also have various advantages. Often times, they have,  better student-to-faculty ratio, which increases the chances of getting to know your professors on a more personal basis, and of course, makes for smaller classes. Many liberal arts colleges are also affiliated with larger universities. So, if you want the experience of a close-knit community while at the same time having the option to access resources at the larger university, consider applying to a liberal arts college.

Not Researching Academic Offerings

As you’re making your college list, remember that research is absolutely essential. If you don’t know what a school is known for or where its strengths lie, you won’t be able to determine whether or not it’s a good fit for you or if your interests align with its offerings. Again, don’t just put a school on your list. If you claim that you want to go to an undergraduate business school and you apply to Brown early decision, admissions officers will know that you haven’t done your research (Brown doesn’t have an undergraduate business college!). Since you’re mainly attending college to study, it’s crucial that you are well-versed in the curriculum offered at the school, at least in the field you’re aiming for. A strong grasp on a school’s unique, academic resources will also help your supplemental essays shine in your applications.

Not Speaking to Your College Counselor

As you’re making your school list, make sure you take advantage of a highly valuable resource that you have in your arsenal—your high school counselor. Ask your counselor different questions so that they can help you formulate your list. Your counselor has insider knowledge on where students from your high school have gone and where students from your grade are applying. Since admissions officers read applications by region, any student applying from your school will be your direct competition. Your counselor can give you a sense of the strengths of those students, as well as direct you towards schools that may not be commonly chosen by your peers. Your counselor will also write you a recommendation letter, so it definitely helps to start the relationship early!

Applying Because Your Friends Are Doing It

This is a rather obvious mistake to make, but we’ve seen it happen. Students often avoid researching whether a college is a good fit for them, and instead put it on their list because all of their friends are applying there, or because their older friends or siblings have gone in the past. While it’s great to have a familiar face while you embark on this journey, you probably won’t get in if you don’t know anything else about the school. Through their supplemental essays, colleges want to know why you’ve chosen them, and “because my friends are doing it” is not a legitimate answer 

For example:

Barnard College: What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College and why do you think the College would be a good match for you? [Max. 300 words]

Tufts University: Which aspects of the Tufts undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, Why Tufts?’ [100-150 words]

Northwestern University: Other parts of your application give us a sense for how you might contribute to Northwestern. But we also want to consider how Northwestern will contribute to your interests and goals. In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you'll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.

You won’t be able to come up with answers that specifically tie  your interests and goals with what makes these institutions unique if the only thing you know about them is that someone you will be applying there. Your list must be tailored to your application and the facilities and courses you’ll need to thrive for the next four years.

Disregarding Location (or ONLY considering a certain location)

Students often don’t pay attention to where a school is located while making their list of colleges. However, location might very well determine where you go to school as you might prefer a certain type of weather. If you’re highly averse to the winter and you apply to Chicago schools primarily, you won’t enjoy your college experience. Or maybe you are hoping to get internships in politics during the summer or even the school year. In this case, it can benefit you to attend college in Washington, DC. 

However, it’s also a mistake while making your school list to consider location too heavily. If you only look at schools in your hometown—or only research colleges in New York City because you’ve always wanted to live there—you could be writing off colleges that could be a good fit for you. While you may not have pictured yourself in St. Louis, Washington University in St. Louis might offer what you need. Or, if you’re only looking at STEM schools on the east coast, you might miss out on applying to Caltech, which is a fantastic institution. Make sure you’re not geographically limiting yourself. 

Choosing Safety Schools You Wouldn’t Want to Attend

Finally, take your safety school seriously.. Safety schools can still be good colleges. They should be chosen based on their ability to provide you with an education that supports your interests and goals. As with any school that you add to your list, you must ensure that you would actually attend the safety schools on your list if you’re admitted. While you should certainly have a dream school and be thrilled about the possibility of attending high-ranked colleges, it’s also important to stay realistic about your chances and not be disheartened once you receive your admissions results. Only apply to schools that you feel strongly about attending!

The college admissions landscape can be unpredictable. To make sure that you maximize your odds, and plan for an undergraduate experience that benefits your plans and interests, your list should consist of institutions that meet your needs. Avoid these seven mistakes and focus on making your school list align with your interests. If you prioritize college fit and show that you’ve done your research, you’ll set yourself up for success. Good luck!

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