List of Colleges

How to Create a List of Colleges to Apply To

Applying to college isn’t all about good grades and a strong narrative[1]; the process also involves making many choices that will shape your college career and, potentially, the rest of your life. Choosing the right colleges, and the right number of colleges, to apply to is a crucial step towards a successful and fulfilling college career. Before setting off creating your list of colleges, it’s important to know what you want and need out of a given college. Imagine your dream college. Where is it? What courses does it offer? How large is the school? Remember that not all of the college experience is about academics. You will spend most of your time at college outside of class[2], so it’s important that you’ll enjoy where you’ll be living and working for the next four years.


How Many Colleges Should You Apply To?

The magic number for a college list is between seven and twelve schools that you’ll eventually apply to. This number is the result of decades of conventional wisdom, but it may seem like guesswork. Why that number? Why pick so many schools if you’ll only attend one? It helps to have choices and backups, which is why 7-12 applications for college is ideal. In an environment with so many other applicants, it helps to have a variety of options.

Why not more? College applications cost money, and some require additional essays and paperwork. Applying to more than twelve colleges will just add more cost and hassle to an already costly and difficult process.

The college application process isn’t entirely a numbers game, but it helps to have statistics on your side. Colleges have seen an increased volume of applicants[3] despite not admitting a larger number of student, resulting in plummeting acceptance rates. Even if you have the right application for your choice school, they may not accept you just because of how many students applied.

Choose any colleges that pique your interest and write them down. Choose ones that meet some or all of your wishlist items for your dream school. It’s okay to have a massive list of colleges at first. If it seems like you’re writing too many, you might be, but the rest of the process is about narrowing your choices down to the 7-12 colleges you’d be happy to attend.


Reach Schools, Target Schools & Safety Schools

Next, start shrinking the list. The goal is to have a total of 7-12 colleges that fit into three different categories: reach schools, target schools, and safety schools.

It’s important to have so-called “reach schools” on your final list, which are schools you’d like to attend, but perhaps aren’t confident enough in your grades to make it in. Have one, two, or three reach schools on your final list. Don’t sell yourself short; students around the country earn admission into their reach schools every year! Don’t cut out every school you worry you might not get into. If a school seems just a little too competitive for you, keep it on the list as a reach school.

On the opposite extreme are your “safety schools”. These are schools you’re very confident you’ll get accepted to. These schools don’t have to be lacking in academics or low-budget; they should just have a higher acceptance rate. Make sure to have 2-3 of these on your final list, and make sure you’ll still have a good college career if you end up at one of your safety schools. Just because it’s a backup plan doesn’t mean it can’t be great!

The most important colleges on your list are your target schools. These are not just middle of the road colleges, they represent solid, sensible choices for your college career. Often your top choice or favorite college is a target school, not a reach school. For most college applicants, a target college will be the school they’ll attend, so don’t just pick schools at random to get your list to 7-12 schools.

Pick target schools with the right departments, the right location, the right price tag, and make sure you cover all of your bases with each school. Treat each college choice as if you will really attend each one.



This may seem like a lot of information and filters for such a large list of schools. Remember that the college application process is filled with unpredictability.

If you don’t get into your first choice of college, don’t fret: this is why you applied to 7-12 schools. You really don’t know which college you’ll end up going to, which is why having 7-12 opportunities and choices can only help your college career.

Making your college application list this way may seem like extra effort, but it will ensure that each college you apply to is worth your time. Taking the time to build a list of colleges you love at every level and in every category is a powerful way to ensure your college career will be exactly what you need!


Author: Hastings Davin

[1] Link to Your College Application Narrative

[2] A Day In the Life: What a Typical College Schedule Looks Like by College Raptor Staff

[3] List of College Acceptance Rates by Imed Bouchrika, PhD