Assess, Research, Refine: A Step-by-Step Guide to College List Building

With more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the US, it can take a while to introduce students to the wide range of post-secondary educational opportunities before you suggest an initial college list. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to have a perfect list of recommendations at the beginning of this process. You’ll have many drafts and revisions before students get to their final list of applications! These steps will keep you and your students balanced and organized through the admissions and financial aid application process.

Assess - define fit and affordability to determine match

1. Identify the student’s most important fit factors

2. Discuss financial aid policies and affordability with students and their families

3. Evaluate the students’ academic progress in relation to matriculation trends from former students

Research and refine – create a balanced and unique list of options

4. Use college search tools to create an initial list

5. Research affordability, selectivity, and other important fit factors for each school on the list

6. Narrow down your list, but keep affordable colleges with a range of selectivity


1. Identify the student’s most important fit factors

One of the most challenging and rewarding steps in the list-building process is the reflection needed from students and their parents. As students consider where they’ll spend their college years, ask them to reflect on where they have thrived in the past. What kinds of academic settings and teaching styles have been best for their learning? What does a school environment need to have for them to feel safe, empowered, and confident that they belong? The answers to these questions may tell you something about where they are most likely to excel in college.

Fit factor: a desired characteristic of the college experience that students are seeking; a characteristic they should research when assessing potential colleges

Understanding a student’s “fit factors” can help you create an initial list. Common fit factors include academic options or majors, size of the student body, geographic setting, location or distance from family, availability of specific professional or extracurricular opportunities, and diversity of the student body


2. Discuss affordability with students and their families

The cost of college is an important factor when making a final college decision, so affordability should be an important consideration when shaping college lists. Students should research the financial aid policies and use the Net Price Calculator or MyinTuition Quick Cost College Estimator to get an early estimate of their financial aid package for each institution on their list.

Affordability: a manageable amount for a student and their family to pay for college

Net price: the yearly amount needed to pay for college after subtracting any grants or scholarships received

With an estimate of their unique cost for college, students and families will be more confident that the colleges on their list can provide adequate financial assistance their family requires. For lower-income families, the most affordable college options will be colleges that commit to meeting 100% of the demonstrated financial need for all admitted students. These colleges and universities could be a good starting point for your list!


3. Evaluate your student's academic progress so far

Help each of your students determine their unique match or level of admissibility by evaluating their academic performance and rigor in relation to the application outcomes of your former students with similar academic profiles. Some organizations track their students’ enrollment outcomes in spreadsheets or a CRM, while others use data from the National Student Clearinghouse to contextualize their program’s college-going trends.

Match or Admissibility: the likelihood of being admitted to an institution given the competitiveness of the student’s application

At schools that practice holistic admissions, predicting exact admissions outcomes is impossible. However, their acceptance rates (or level of selectivity) indicate how large or small a proportion of applicants are admitted. You can typically find a school’s most recent acceptance rate on the incoming or admitted class profile with additional information about historically successful applicants.

Holistic admissions: a qualitative and quantitative selection process that relies on context from the student’s family, educational, geographic, and other experiences


4. Use multiple resources to create an initial list

Online college search tools like Appily can be a great starting point to learn about the types of institutions that might be a good academic, cultural, and financial fit for your students. Word of mouth in the counselor community and success stories from your former students should be taken into consideration for future recommendations, too. Consider subscribing to counselor newsletters and events hosted by colleges and universities to gather additional information throughout the year.

Encourage students to track how each school aligns with their top fit factors. Using a spreadsheet or another organizational system will help them document their likes and dislikes and could eventually be used to track application materials or deadlines when their list is closer to completion. Once you’ve created the initial list of nine schools to research, share it with the student and their family. Then, suggest ways that family members can be supportive and motivational in this process!


5. Continue researching and refining the list

Narrowing the college list requires additional research beyond the initial data provided from online college search tools. Students can browse admissions and departmental websites for even more details about what an institution offers. Google Maps can be helpful in finding shopping, food, and entertainment options nearby, as well as checking the distance to a bus/train station or airport for trips home to see family.

Looking up the support services and financial resources specifically available to students who share a background or experience with your students can help you evaluate the top fit factors of each school in consideration. Some colleges have entire offices dedicated to serving and advising first-generation, lower-income, BIPOC, undocumented, or LGBTQ+ students through their transition to college.

Social media accounts, such as YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram give an authentic, vibrant look at a college’s culture (especially for specific to student groups that align with your students’ interests). However, campus tours and information sessions - whether in-person or virtual - are the best ways to hear directly from current students and gauge how comfortable your students might feel on a particular campus. Other virtual events – including online student panels, virtual tours, one-on-one calls with admissions representatives, and online college fairs – can also provide a personal look at the lives of the people who live, study, and work on that campus. (Tip: Check to see if any of the schools on your list offer a fly-in or diversity program.)

With this robust information about each institution, your students will become better equipped to identify which schools would be the best academic, cultural, and financial fit and which institutions should be removed from your initial college list.


6. Narrow down your list

Remember, the goal is for your students to apply to a manageable number of colleges that:

  • meet their most important fit factors
  • provide realistic financial options for their family
  • result in multiple offers of admission before they finalize their college plans

Your students might already adore several extremely selective “reach” schools, but be sure they apply to a range of “target” schools and at least two “likely” options to remain balanced. Every student’s situation will be unique, but we suggest developing an initial list that includes three “likelies,” three “matches”, and three “reaches.”

Likely: schools that you’re excited about and feel confident in your chance of admission

Target: schools where you are possibly admissible, a bit more competitive institution with students whose GPA and rigor of high school courses are similar to yours

Reach: schools that typically accept students with higher GPAs or stronger academic rigor

This is a flexible and dynamic process, but your students and their families can feel a lot more confident about their options when you take this balanced approach to applying to college. For more information about fit factors and list building, check out these resources from a few of our college access partners: