How to Narrow Down Your College List

Application Strategies
October 27, 2020
The Deadline To Submit College Applications Is Drawing Near…

As a result, students across the country are realizing they need to get serious about their college applications. Fortunately, starting this process with a carefully researched list of schools can make the whole experience much easier.

Often, students are asked to create a list of reach, target, and safety schools without being told what exactly those words mean. These categories will play a big role in your student’s college list, and in this article, we’ll talk more about how to determine what type of school falls into each category. We also go in-depth to examine why starting from a list is so important and how your student can narrow it down to the schools that would be their best fit. Let’s get started!

Why Every Student Needs A College List

With the rise of catch-all college applications like the Common Application and the Coalition Application, it may be tempting for students to dive right into the application process with only a vague idea of which schools they may end up applying to. However, making a college list before filling out applications is extremely important. Your student’s list of colleges will form the foundation from which you should base all your research and application efforts. Starting from a solid list of colleges keeps your child organized from the start. It also makes it much easier to create a clear timeline and schedule to help them stay on track no matter what challenges they may face.

However, like any good list, your student’s college list should remain flexible. If they learn about a college that would be an ideal fit for them as they fill out applications, it may be worth removing another college from their list or making extra time to apply. A good college list helps your student to stay on track and make sure they allocate enough time to apply to every college they’re interested in attending.

How Many Schools Should Students Apply To?

Ideally, students should apply to a number of schools rather than just one or two. While every student will have their own magic number, as a general rule of thumb students should aim to narrow their college list to:

  • 2-3 reach schools
  • 3-4 target schools
  • 4-5 safety schools

Adjusting the exact number of schools to suit your child’s needs is recommended, but keep the ratios relatively the same. They want to aim to apply to a small handful of “dream” schools, a decent amount of schools where they are competitive, and a decent amount of safety schools where they are likely to be accepted.

Often, when you first start researching different colleges, your student will end up with a far longer list of colleges than they could ever apply to. Knowing how to narrow down their college list to determine which schools would be the best fit and have the best chances of being accepted will make this initial part of the college application process much easier.

5 Ways To Narrow Their College List


In order to cut down on the number of colleges on your student’s list, research into the details of each college may be required. Sometimes students will add a college to their list after one conversation with a recruiter or after reading a single webpage; and while this is a viable way to find colleges, more research into each school is recommended before your student starts to fill out applications.

When researching schools, you should focus on things like program selection, academic rigor, and the support systems that they have in place for students. Additionally, while you may not have time to look over the extracurricular and cultural life of each school, these areas can be just as important to research.


Every student will have certain things they won’t compromise on during the college search. For some, they may only want to apply to schools in-state or within a certain distance from home. Others may be more focused on the social or experience aspects of college. Regardless of what your student finds most important about their future college, create a list of “dealbreakers” and use it to help narrow down the college list.

Common dealbreakers for students and their families can include:

  • College location
  • Tuition cost
  • Variety of programs
  • School culture
  • Institution type and structure
  • Graduate support

By determining ahead of time what aspects of a college are dealbreakers for your student, you help them focus on the schools that would be a good fit rather than wasting time with colleges that wouldn’t meet all their needs.


The total cost of college is by far one of the most important things to consider when making a college list. Having a plan in place to pay for your child’s education is much easier to accomplish when they apply to colleges that fit within your budget. So, have an open and honest conversation with your student about how much they can afford before they set their heart on a school that would leave them with a mountain of student debt.

During your research, pay special attention to the financial aid offered by each school. Often school-sponsored scholarships can mean the difference between it being financially unwise to attend a college and making that college the best choice financially. Further on, your student can spend more time researching to see what type of financial aid they may qualify for to help pay for the costs.


Some students may be tempted to shy away from schools that they feel are either out of their reach or not as competitive as they would like. While you are seeking to narrow your list down, make sure to keep an open mind as you do your research and consider the pros and cons of each school objectively.

Also, keep in mind that not every school can fit your student’s needs and wants perfectly. If a school would fall within your student’s target category and fits all their needs and half of their wants, it makes sense to apply. That way, even if they don’t manage to get admitted into their dream school, they have a good chance of being accepted into a school that is still an excellent fit for their personality.


At the same time, students should be realistic about their overall competitiveness. Part of the research process should include looking at the average SAT or ACT scores as well as GPA for each of the colleges on your student’s list, as well as the overall competitiveness of the school. Our WeAdmit college guides offer this information and can help your student make a more informed decision.

If your student is starting their college list during their junior year of high school, there may still be time for them to raise their GPA and prepare themselves to retake any standardized tests. Being honest with yourself and your student will help you know where you’re starting from and what you need to do in order to improve your student’s chances of being admitted to their dream schools.

Be Selective With Your College List

While students should keep an open mind and let their curiosity guide their college research, in the end, it makes much more sense to apply only to a select list of colleges. By choosing to only apply to a few schools, students can keep application costs down while also raising their chances of being accepted into a college where they can thrive.

Of course, we know how many excellent colleges there are across the United States. Our WeAdmit counselors would love to help your student make the tough choices when it comes to narrowing down their college list. Once we’ve guided your student through this crucial step, we can offer guidance in all other areas of the college application process too, from recommendation letters to personal statements and more.



Need more Information?

Gain all the information you need by getting in touch with our admissions team or booking a free 30-minute counseling session.