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How to Research Schools & Build Your College List

Last updated October 23, 2023

With so many colleges and university options across the country, it’s important to develop a strategy to help narrow down your choices. Building a college list allows you to compare options in order to make an informed decision about where to apply. Making college decisions is a complicated process and can feel overwhelming, but we're here to help! Follow the tips below to help you organize and prioritize.

Decide your factors and priorities

Everyone's goals and interests are unique, so it's important to identify the factors you want to consider when researching colleges. Take a moment to reflect on your priorities and be honest with yourself - what your family or friends want in a college may not necessarily align with what you want. This is a great opportunity to get to know yourself and your values better and to determine what you want to gain from your college experience.

For example, here are some things to consider as you're reflecting on your college priorities:

  • Think about the location of the college and your living goals. Do you plan to live at home during college? Do you want to live on campus but be within a few hours from home? Is going to school several states away your goal? 
  • What about extracurricular activities like clubs or sports teams? How do they factor into your decision?
  • Is it a requirement that your school share  your religious and/or social awareness values a priority? How much will these requirements weigh on your decision to apply?

Check out our articles 4 Factors to Consider When Choosing a College and Campus Culture: Non-Academic Factors to Consider When Choosing a College for more information on some of these factors and how they can impact your college experience.

Find the right search tools

To begin your search, we recommend using three resources. The U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard tool and College Board's BigFuture platform both provide information on graduation rates, average annual costs, student body demographics, and more. You can also use these tools to compare colleges and see how they measure up to each other based on these metrics. If financial fit is a priority for you, uAspire’s list of financially safer schools can also help in your search.

You can also check the websites of specific schools to research academic factors like majors or minors offered, classes offered and their descriptions, and professor profiles. To get a better sense of the college's culture, values, and community, you can also follow their social media accounts to see the latest updates, news, and events happening on campus. Using these tools will allow you to get a full picture of each college, and it will better help you when it comes time to decide where to apply.

Organize your list and keep it manageable

When you begin your college search you may already have a long list of schools, and that’s okay! You can start with a list of 20-30 colleges that meet your criteria then narrow it down as you go deeper into your research. Once you have your initial list, categorize them into Dream, Target, and Match schools:

  • Dream schools are the ones you dream of going to, but are a bit more competitive to get into due to things like lower acceptance rates, minimum required GPAs or test scores, or even high costs of tuition.
  • Target schools are schools you feel confident about getting accepted to, even if they’re not necessarily at the very top of your list.
  • Match schools are schools you have a strong chance of getting admitted to. Your test scores, GPA, or coursework typically match those of other incoming students at these schools.

Once everything is categorized, consider narrowing your list down to 10-15 colleges, with a few schools in each category to keep your options open. Organizing your list and keeping it manageable will help you stay on top of your applications and make the college search process less overwhelming!

Begin your search and build your list!

Now that you’re equipped with the right tools, it’s time to start building your college list! During this process you may see a college that was not originally on your radar, but find it  meets your criteria. To help you get started, click the button below to download our FREE College List Builder!

How To Build Your College List download link

If you have any questions about the college application process, text #College to 33-55-77 to chat with one of our advisors. If you're using a mobile device, click here to have the text message set up for you!

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