How to compare colleges, to make your target college list – with the best safety schools and reach schools suited for you!

Every student deserves to apply to his or her dream school. But how do you narrow down a list of solid choices to apply to when there are so many options out there? And how do you make sure you also apply to some “realistic” colleges, to make sure you get into at least one? We’re walking you through the steps to simplify creating your list of colleges to apply to.

Student on computer researching list of colleges

What to consider when comparing colleges

There’s a lot to think about when you’re thinking about what colleges you want to apply to. For example, you might want to consider the following:

  • Financial aid – What’s your likely aid package going to look like? Many colleges have “net price calculators” or financial aid package estimators on their website.
  • Cost of attendance – How expensive is the college? Remember to consider whether the college will accept your CLEPs or APs as college credit, as this might end up reducing your tuition. 
  • Location Do you want to be located near home? In a city, or a smaller suburb/town? How’s the weather in the area? Is it safe? Is it near interesting landmarks or places you’d want to regularly visit?
  • Transportation – How do you get to class? Can you walk or bike from your accommodation? How do you get around town or to the nearest city? If you’re planning to bring your car, is there plentiful parking?
  • Major – Does it have a major aligned with your interests? Or can you create your own major?
  • Academic programs – In general, how strong are its academics? How strong is the department related to your intended major? Is there a “core curriculum” or course requirements you’ll have to take (and if so, do you like that)?
  • Campus – What’s the campus like? Is it on its own, or integrated in a city? Do you like how it looks?
  • Housing options – Does the university provide housing? Do students tend to stay in their own shared apartments, or in dorms? Could you live at home?
  • Student culture – What’s the general vibe of the place? Is there anything the student body is known for? Is it a good party school?
  • Student body size – Is it a big, medium, or small school? 
  • Student body diversity – How diverse is the school, in terms of race, socio-economic status, country or US state of origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity? Are there particular types of diversity you might care more or less about?
  • Professor interactions – What’s the average class size? Are there opportunities for smaller seminars? Do most professors have office hours? Are most classes taught by actual professors or by graduate students?
  • Extracurriculars – What student clubs are there? What are popular student extracurriculars?
  • Research opportunities – Can you work in a science or psychology lab? Can you become a Research Assistant for a professor, as an undergrad? Can you get funding for your own research?
  • Sports – Is the school highly ranked in certain sports, and are sporting events (e.g. football or basketball games) highly attended? Will you have the opportunity to play club sports?
  • Greek Life – Are fraternities and sororities a big part of campus life? Which ones are on campus?
  • Study abroad options – Do most students study abroad? What programs does the school offer, and to what destinations?
  • Health and Wellness – What’s the student health/medical center like? Does the school offer free medical help or check-ups? What about mental health? What’s the gym like? How’s the food? (Is it delicious and/or healthy?)
  • Religious affiliation – Does the school have a religious affiliation? Are there religious services available on campus (e.g. a church with a regular Sunday service)?
  • Political leaning – Does the school (either the professors or the student body) have a political leaning? If you are political, are there outlets like student clubs for you to continue your activism?
  • School history – How old is the school? What is its history and legacy?
  • Reputation / Rank – How highly ranked is the school? What is its reputation, either generally or specifically for your intended major?
  • Career center / Job help – Is there a strong career center to help you find summer internships or a job after graduation? Is there a strong alumni network or community that you can tap into?

This is the kind of information to research on individual college websites or lists of colleges. You might also want to ask about some of these elements while on your college tours.

Student on computer in coffee shop

Too much to consider all in your head? 

We’ve got you covered with this handy College Comparison Tool spreadsheet. Using the worksheet, you’ll be able to rate the college characteristics that matter to you, score colleges based on those traits, and then see which colleges have the best “weighted score” in the end. We’ve already pre-populated all the formulas for you, so you see what the mathematically right college list is for you. Go ahead, get your nerd on. 🤓

Student creates list of colleges

Not sure how to work out the financial bits? 

Review your list of top 10 colleges and research each of their estimated costs of attendance. You can keep track of your top colleges with this handy template here.

Remember, top colleges may or may not be the top value colleges. To figure that out, you’ll want to look at your likely cost out-of-pocket (after financial aid) vs. your likely salary after graduation. Remember to factor in your intended major, as estimated salaries may vary depending on what subject you study during college.

How many colleges to apply to

We recommend keeping your college application list to 10 colleges MAX. This way, you’ll be able to focus on your applications and submit quality ones. Quality over quantity!

That said, sometimes it only takes 3-5 colleges for you to be successful in your search. If you’ve had a chance to visit the campus before applying, be sure to make connections with faculty or admissions officers, so you can leave a lasting impression. 

When you submit your application, you can then mention your campus tour or scholars weekend experience in your college application essay. Admissions counselors like to hear that you’ve made a real effort to get to know the school! 

Finding the right mix of colleges

Generally, you’ll want to make sure your list of colleges has a mix of safety schools, target schools, and reach schools. 

Level 1: Safety schools

Also known as backup schools, “safety schools” are colleges that you’ll more than likely be accepted at. Your standardized test scores, class rank, and academics should be well above average for that school’s admitted students. Safety schools may also have higher acceptance rates since they want a large number of students to attend their school.

Keep in mind that you should still be happy attending your safety school if it’s the only one you’re admitted to. There’s no point in applying to any schools you wouldn’t actually attend!

Level 2: Target schools

A target school means your academic profile is close to that of the middle 50 percent of students in attendance. 

Coming up with your list of colleges you’ll apply to should not just involve location, academics, campus life, sports, religious affiliation, etc. but also affordability!

Level 3: Reach schools

A reach school is where your academics might fall in the lower rankings, the school might be more expensive than target and safety schools, and the school might have a low acceptance rate. For most students, their dream school is one of their reach schools. Of course, if you’ve been pining after a certain college, add it to your list!

Student celebrates good news

Deciding when to apply: Making sense of all the college application deadlines

Once you’ve got your college list in place, it’s a good idea to get organized! Our College List worksheet (tab 4) has a suggestion on how to keep track of the deadlines. Many schools have multiple ones– including early decision, early action, and regular decision deadlines. Some schools even have two early deadlines.

Early Decision (Nov)

If you’ve applied to a college and accepted as an Early Decision (ED) applicant, this is a binding agreement, meaning you’re required to attend the college. So you can only apply to one college Early Decision. If you go this route, only apply ED to your first choice college!

Normally Early Decision application deadlines are in November. You also get your admissions decision (and normally your financial aid package) from college early, usually by the end of December. 

If you get in, you’ll need to withdraw any other applications you submitted to other colleges. Finally, to secure your spot, you’ll need to send in your nonrefundable admission deposit well before May 1.

Early Action (Nov/Dec)

Early action (EA), on the other hand, is a nonbinding application. The EA deadline is still before the regular deadline, normally in November or December, and like with ED, you’ll benefit from hearing back early from your college about whether you got in or not (usually in December, January, or February). But unlike with ED, even if you were admitted, you don’t have to accept. You can also wait to hear back from your other colleges to compare your offers.

You can usually apply to multiple colleges EA, since it is non-binding. 

Single-Choice Early Action

There’s another nonbinding option known as “single-choice early action” in which students cannot apply ED or EA to any other college. This means you can apply as Early Action to only one college, as well as Regular Decision to other colleges. 

You’ll receive a response to your Single-Choice Early Action application in mid-December, and you’ll have until May 1 (the regular deadline) to respond to an offer.

Single-Choice Early Action is ideal if you have a target school in mind that you definitely want to attend – and want a yes or no answer early – so you can still take time to compare financial aid options for other colleges.

Regular Decision

Finally, there’s the normal regular decision. Usually, this is the last application deadline, often in December, January, or February. You’ll then receive an admissions decision no later than April 1 of your senior year of high school. 

Regular decision is nonbinding, and you’ll need to give the college your response by May 1. This might cause you to make quick decisions, but it’s a good option if you’re not quite ready to submit your college applications early, and if you’re okay waiting to receive your college offers.

Why should I consider applying early?

Applying early is a great option if you completed your research on your list of colleges, are 100% sure of your first-choice college, have a solid academic record (including test scores), and find that this college checks all your boxes (academics, location, extracurricular activities).

The College Board recommends you fill out NACAC’s Early Decision Self-Evaluation Questionnaire if you want to apply early, and to share this with your parent(s) before applying.

Financial Aid deadlines

Students are often so focused on college admissions applications deadlines that they forget about the financial aid application deadlines! Remember that colleges often also their own deadlines for submitting the FAFSA or CSS Profile forms. So make sure you check each school’s financial aid site for information!

Student hugging family member at graduation

Ready to kick off your college application list?

Use this handy template to start creating your college application list! Do the research, think about everything that will affect your experience, and consider your options.

Once you’ve narrowed down your college list, we recommend signing up for a free Going Merry profile to get started on your scholarship applications.

Kelly Lamano

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