Last updated May 3, 2022 

Getting ready for life after high school can be incredibly exciting! It can also be overwhelming, given that you have to make significant personal and financial decisions for your future all while juggling your school work and personal life. It’s a lot to handle, but don’t worry, we’re here to help! 

Factors to Consider

To figure out what colleges to apply to, you have to know what matters to you and what is expected of you. Linda J. Hollenback of Hollenback Consulting recommends families “have an open and honest discussion about the college list upfront.”

So make sure you consider factors such as:

  • Location: Proximity to things you care about. How close is a college to home, to a city, to activities you enjoy (e.g. beach, theater), to work/career opportunities?
  • Academics: What majors and programs does a college offer? How do your grades and scores compare to the class profile of those recently admitted?
  • Finances: How much does it cost to attend (tuition, room/board, etc.)? What financial aid is offered? How will you pay for it?
  • Resources: What support and facilities are available? Gyms, career centers, tutoring centers, academic support services, etc.
  • Campus Life: Extracurriculars, athletics, Greek life, residence halls, etc.
  • Status: Name recognition, prestige, and the network of people you will potentially have upon graduation.
  • Other: Anything else that is important to you (e.g. religious affiliation, family connections).

When researching majors, in addition to making sure a college will appropriately support you “in all aspects of your learning and personal development,” Hollenback advises students to “dig into their chosen academic program” by going beyond simply seeing if a college offers a major, and instead finding out how studying that major at that college compares to others. Hollenback recommends students “review the department’s faculty and research centers to get a sense of what the program specializes in” and “have a conversation with a current student in your major at the school so you can get the student perspective” before making any final decisions about applying. And make sure to know how majors affect acceptance rates. In some cases, certain majors have lower admission rates than the overall university. 

But what if you don’t know what you want to study? Some colleges are more welcoming to undecided students. These schools may have an “open curriculum,” which encourages exploration and doesn’t expect you to declare a major immediately.

Hollenback has found that one of the most stressful aspects of building a college list is dealing with the voices of others. She offers this advice: “There are a lot of colleges to choose from, and a big name doesn’t always mean great fit. There are a lot of smaller or lesser known colleges that provide incredible educational experiences and opportunities for teens. Don’t restrict yourself by the pressure of what others think. Choose based on what is best for you.”

Organizing and Narrowing Down Your List

Hollenback reassures teens that it’s okay to cast a “wide net” initially, as long as you keep track of your “top 3 likes, any dislikes, and any outstanding questions you’d need answered to decide whether or not to apply.” Hollenback also advises students to “Give each school a rank from 1 to 5. Over time, you’ll see which schools are rising to the top of the list.”

Make a distinction between a college that is a good fit versus one that is a good match. For Hollenback, “fit” is holistically “considering the whole experience of college both in and out of the classroom, and “match” is strategically “making sure you are a smart consumer in the higher education selection process, balancing your list to maximize choice and minimize cost.” 

Next, rank schools based on how well a college meets your needs (fit). Try to picture yourself at a college and ask yourself: Do I belong here? How many features of the school (e.g. location, activities, resources, costs) line up with what I want and need? Finally, categorize each college based on how well you meet its admissions criteria (match). Based on your GPA, test scores, and other factors, each college will be a reach school (less likely to get in), a target school (likely to get in), or a Likely school (more than likely to get in). Create a balanced list of 8 to 10 colleges that includes Reach, Target, and Likely (a.k.a. Safety) schools to, as Hollenback put it, “maximize your chances of admissions success.” And make sure that all of the schools, even Likely schools, are ones your student would be happy to attend.


There are plenty of resources to help you gather information, compare colleges, narrow down your choices, and get to know yourself and your needs. People who you can trust are always a great resource, including your school counselor, a college admissions consultant, and especially a close family member. These people can assess your academic, financial, and personal needs, push when you need to be challenged, and support you when you need to be encouraged.

Parents, of course, are going to be a big part of your college search. Hollenback recommends that “Parents should have a say in the college list insomuch as affirming that the list is balanced and includes options within the geographic and budgetary constraints previously agreed upon. Beyond that, the list should be the teen’s to choose as they will be the one living the experience.” Hollenback encourages parents to “Be careful not to let your personal feelings dictate your teen’s choice. If the school is truly one that you feel your teen is overlooking, have an honest conversation about why you see it as a fit for them, facilitate a visit, and then let your teen make the final decision.”

Other resources will help you research colleges and track your findings. Create your own spreadsheet or use the A+ Creating a College List worksheet, to compile information about key features of ten colleges before ranking them according to how each fits your needs and categorizing them based on selectivity. The following online resources are also worth checking out:

  • Big Future from The College Board: Research and compare colleges alongside test prep and career planning resources.
  • Naviance: College and career planning tool offered by many school counseling departments that also gives students the ability to view admissions results of students from your school with similar academic profiles.
  • Scoir: Another college planning system offered by schools that helps students research colleges, view admissions data of other students from your school, build a resume, take a career interest inventory, etc. 
  • CollegeXpress: Search for information about colleges by keywords, such as major and location, and access links and rankings as well as additional college planning advice.
  • U.S. News College Compass: Track deadlines, research test scores, review alumni data, explore financial aid, and use the My Fit Custom Ranking tool.
  • Niche: Helps students find the schools that fit them best.
  • Net Price Calculator: Find out what students like you paid to attend the institution in the previous year, after taking grants and scholarship aid into account.

The Timeline

Although it’s never too early to start exploring colleges in a more general and informal way, the ideal time to get serious about your search is your junior year. Browse options online, visit colleges, and participate in activities offered at school, such as college fairs, to start getting a better sense of what you’re looking for. Ask your counselor at school for help making sure you’re on track to meet any admissions requirements. By the middle of junior year, you should have an initial list, and by mid-June you should have your list done and your applications started. 

Don’t procrastinate. You’ll reduce your stress by starting early. Since many students are admitted by applying early, the sooner you start the better. That way, you will have plenty of time to apply early and to do some of the extras that will make you stand out to admissions officers, such as taking time to contact them, do interviews, and attend Zooms.

What to Do Next

For Hollenback, building a good college list is ultimately about “what is best for you, and you alone. There is no wrong answer. Who you are and who you will become is not defined by where you go. Trust your gut and enjoy the process.”

And at A+, we’re there for you every step of the way. Not only do we offer our own College List Worksheet, we also provide SAT/ACT tutoring, academic tutoring, and college essay help so you can do your best to impress admissions officers and secure a spot at the college that is best for you.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Joelle Faucette and Michelle Giagnacovo can be reached at 215-886-9188.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What They're Saying


Contact Us


A+ Test Prep and Tutoring -- Philadelphia

505 York Road, Suite 6, Jenkintown PA 19046

A+ Test Prep and Tutoring -- Montgomeryville

593-1 Bethlehem Pike, Unit #4, Montgomeryville PA 18936