Academic Advising 101: Mission Totally Possible—Creating A College List

Many students (and parents!) find drafting an initial college list to be a daunting task. After all, there are over 4,000 colleges across the country. While different college rankings can certainly offer a place to start when researching schools, the subjective rankings are often met with skepticism.

At Green Ivy, we believe it is more useful to think of rankings as a snapshot of what schools have to offer, simply a place to start before doing deeper research on individual campuses. Rankings aren’t going to illuminate that gem of a liberal arts school in the Pacific Northwest or a unique Southern school with a community feel, and have often been criticized for their misleading data points.

Over the past fifteen years, we’ve traveled to over a hundred schools around the country, and our extensive research and on-the-ground visits provide us with unique perspectives to help students make informed choices and discover fantastic, lesser known schools. Two of our recent students who grew up abroad (we work with many American expatriates living outside the U.S.) are thrilled to be on college campuses that they had never heard of before receiving our initial recommendations.

Here are five ways to think about crafting an effective college list:

Think about wants and needs. Every student is unique, and has different wants and needs. Some may be seeking a specific academic course of study, and others might want a community campus feel. We’ve worked with students who have specific learning differences and needed to make sure accommodations were available on campus, and others who wanted to be able to play intramural sports. A little self-reflection can create clarity – creating a list of the ideal qualities in a college experience doesn’t mean any one college will have everything, but it will help students from getting too bogged down or overwhelmed.

Read and use available resources. A large part of what makes Green Ivy’s college counseling program different is our unique understanding of schools across the country, which gives students and parents an insider’s view of colleges. There are a lot of great resources available online, and we recommend the Fiske Guide to Colleges. It has great descriptions of each campus, and then provides key data points (percent accepted, tests required, admissions information) as well as “overlap” schools – eg. if you like Syracuse, you might like these campuses as well.

Use campus visits wisely. Many times students will tell me that they don’t like taking tours, but official campus tours can be a great way to get a sense of the campus. When visiting schools, I recommend taking photos of all the schools and spending 10 minutes after every visit writing down any thoughts or opinions in a notebook (otherwise, all the schools tend to blend together). Also, here are three great questions to ask on every visit to a random student that you meet in the Student Center. If no student is friendly enough to answer these questions, there’s a problem!):

  1. What do you love most about [the school]?
  2. What do you wish you could change about [the school]?
  3. What do you wish you would have known before attending [the school]?

Be idealistic and realistic. While it would be incredibly wonderful and ideal for every school to have a thoroughly holistic process, the truth is that grades and scores do have a role in the application process. (Side note: there are an increasing number of schools that are test optional, and you can find a list of those schools here). We’ve had students attend some wonderful schools that are test optional, including Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, Pitzer and Whitman.

Edit early and often. A student’s school list will naturally have some changes or edits, as campus visits or research sometimes makes some schools more desirable than others. Over the years, we’ve heard of students applying to 18, 24, 26 colleges, and we find that to be ineffective – not to mention exhausting and overwhelming! Students who work with us apply to 8-12 schools, with a range of likely, target and reach schools. This number is manageable and works to ensure students have several options in the Spring. Remember: more applications does not mean more acceptances – in many cases, it simply means more work, decreased quality and focus, and more stress.

Our goal has always been to look at the college advising and application process as a way to help students become self-aware and reflective of their strengths, values, and abilities. We know that there are an abundance of choices, and strive to show students what it can and should be: an exciting chance for introspection, growth and personal discovery.

More information on our academic advising and college counseling services and packages can be found here.