A 5-Step Guide to Creating the Perfect College Shortlist



Creating a well-balanced college shortlist is both a science and an art. It requires systematic research, detailed analysis, and developing a hypothesis about a future outcome. Simultaneously, it demands skill to creatively balance the shortlist between Reach, Target, and Likely colleges. The college list is the goal that students establish for themselves – sometimes as early as junior year – and most of their time and effort will be dedicated towards achieving these objectives. Over-zealous goals can cause considerable stress and pressure, while easy goals may not feel satisfying even after they have been achieved. It is therefore important to get the balance just right.


So where do you begin, especially since there are over 4000 colleges and universities to choose from? And what are some of the most important elements that students should consider as they build their list? Let’s break it down.


Step 1: Soul search. Think about your future career interests and the corresponding major and minor that you would like to pursue in college. Some of you may be very clear about what you want to study, while others may be still finding themselves. If you belong to the second group, I would recommend beginning with a career and personality assessment. While not foolproof, the results from these assessments are often a great springboard to explore a variety of careers. (PRO tip: you can start taking some of these assessments as early as grade 9)


Step 2: Find a master/broad college list and work your way from there. Contrary to what most Counselors will advise, I recommend starting with the US News & World Report rankings. Not because I want you to obsess over the exact ranking of each college, but because I want you to easily and quickly glean a full list of colleges from one reliable source. Sort through this list keeping in mind your major and select 25-30 colleges that spark your interest.


Step 3: Research, research, research. Consider academic programs that you may be interested in. For instance, would you like the option of a Co-op program, where you alternate academic semesters with semesters of full-time work? Do you prefer the flexibility of an open curriculum instead of a structured, core curriculum? Would you like the option to study abroad?


You should also factor in your non-academic interests. For example: If you enjoy playing the cello, do you have opportunities to level up your cello skills in college? Or, if you are interested in community service work, does the college have a deep-rooted history of giving back to the community?


Step 4: Explore your deeper preferences. Think about not only where you will succeed, but where you will thrive. For some students, the location of the college is important – they prefer a big, bustling city instead of a rural environment. For others, the size of the college is important - they prefer small, intimate class settings where professors know them on a first name basis instead of large classes where they are a drop in the ocean. Here are a few more questions to ask yourself:


· Does a Greek system excite you?

· How close to home do you want to be?

· Do you prefer a competitive environment or a collaborative one?

· Is it important for you to be in a college which has a lot of diversity?


Continue to narrow down your list to your top 10-15 colleges.


Step 5: For every college that made it to your final list, compare your GPA and test scores to those of the previous year’s incoming freshman class. That will help you determine if the college is a Reach, Target, or Likely school for you. Organize this list into an excel spreadsheet so that you can easily track deadlines and other requirements. It may look something like this:



Reach out to alumni and current students, attend virtual campus tours, and keep track of everything you learn on this spreadsheet.


The college you select is going to be home for the next 4 years and I want you to be excited about every school on your shortlist. And although we started this process with a published ranking chart, I encourage you to research, reflect and ultimately design your own college ranking chart that will be the best fit for you and only you.


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