The Truth About Building a Balanced College List

Most students get the advice to build a balanced college list, but what does this really mean?

It's not just about having a dream and safety school, especially in this highly competitive time. It's important for students to have realistic expectations about which institutions will be the best academic, financial, and social fit.

While not explicitly seen as a negative, the phenomenon of students "over" and "under" matching themselves to schools points to the fact that students may not be giving due diligence to creating a balanced check list.

So what exactly does a balanced college list look like?
All the institutions on a student's list, of which there should be 10-15, need to be categorized into "likely," "target," and "reach" schools.

"Likely" schools = student's academic profile is significantly stronger than the middle 50 percent of students who are typically admitted.

"Target" schools = student's academic profile is similar to that middle 50 percent.

"Reach" schools
= student's academic profile is not as strong as the middle 50 percent.

All of this information can be found on the school's website and it's important to know where the prospective student's academic profile stands in relation to admitted students in order to manage expectations. A wide-range of schools should be identified to apply to in order to maximize options. Too many reaches may leave too few, or no offers of admission.

How to assess which schools are the best fit?
Simply going after the Ivy League schools might seem foolproof, but just considering "name brands" is not a good strategy. Students need to make sure that they will thrive at their chosen school. This means researching activities, courses, and campus life experiences that a student is looking for in college life.

Further, doing research to find schools that are a financial fit is also important. A recent study has found that the cost of college and the economy has become a major factor in influencing where students enroll and what they choose to study. While it's normal to have some sticker shock upon seeing the tuition rates at some colleges and universities, the numbers don't tell the whole story. Applicants should research the net cost vs. the sticker price. Resources like College Navigator can give students a good idea of what they actually end up paying. Students should also look into how much financial aid the schools offer and whether their admissions policy is need-blind or need-aware (meaning does the school take economic status into consideration).

Tips to Create a Balanced College List:
  • Research! Look into the academic offerings, student activities, campus life, financial aid, etc. Identify what aspects of the college experience matter the most and see what schools offer them. Do this for every school of interest.
  • Keep personal preferences in mind. If a student loves surfing and warmer weather year-round, a school in a mountainous region with a cool climate may not be the best fit. Think about school size, geography, and the surrounding community when building a list.
  • Visit. Perhaps one of the most important things students can do is go on a campus visit. Not only will the visit be documented for demonstrated interest purposes, it will allow students to really get a feel for the school and campus community. This is where a student can find out if they see themselves at that school for the next four years and allows for more in-depth research, meeting professors, etc.
  • Talk about finances. It is important for those who may be helping with or footing the bill to be involved in this process as supporters and guides. Students should talk about the schools on their list and financial expectations.
  • Think about application strategy. At IvyWise, we tell our students to consider whether applying Early Decision or Early Action will help their chances of admission to one of their top- choice schools. This can significantly impact the final list and admissions outcome.

Creating a balanced college list is one of the most important things a student will do in the college application process. For a more in-depth look at creating a balanced college list, visit our IvyWise Webinar Series.