Making a "Short List"
Coming up with a "short list" of where you're going to send your college applications is ideally a lengthy, iterative process of:
- IDENTIFYING one particular quality you're looking for in a school;
- RESEARCHING all the schools on your overall list to find out how well or poorly they demonstrate that quality;
- ELIMINATING a number of schools that don't make the grade.1
It's important to first have an idea of some particular things you want out of college. You start with your top priority, usually a program or field (if you want to study engineering, you've already eliminated every university that doesn't have an engineering program), and repeat the process with the next most important thing you want in a school, until you reach your goal—a "short list" with the following qualities:
- Attending any school on the list would enable you to pursue a career (or field of graduate study) that you find interesting.
- You can reasonably afford the total cost in application fees, test fees, and transcript/score report fees required to apply to every school on your list.
- You have enough time to write any essays, complete any applications, take any tests, and obtain any letters of reference required to meet every application deadline at the schools on your list.2
- The list includes at least one "safety" and one "reach" (keeping in mind the first point above).3
Notice that so far, we haven't really talked about money issues. You can use cost of attendance as a factor in building your short list, but I would recommend making cost of attendance very low priority; leave it alone until you've run out of other good ways to narrow down your list. Why? Because in the overwhelming majority of cases you won't know for certain whether you can afford a school until you find out what financial aid and scholarships you're offered and you won't have that information until after you apply. As long as you have an affordable safety on your list, it won't be the end of the world if you have to turn down a school that didn't offer you enough financial aid.
Once your list meets the four criteria above, you're ready to begin your applications. An additional rule of thumb is that you should have more than two schools on your list, even if one's your safety and the other's your reach.4 There's no hard upper limit to the number of schools on your list, but if you're in double digits it can be pretty crazy keeping track of it all. Five or six schools is a reasonable number for most high school seniors.
Are you ready?
The first step is to put together a list of every single college and university in the world. You've probably already done that, so let's move on to—
Okay, okay. There's no way you're starting with every single school on your list. But one thing that most high school students never consider is just how many great schools they've never heard of. By the time you reach high school you'll probably be familiar with a number of famous schools, local schools, and schools that your family, peers and teachers attended. That's a very small portion of the huge number of accredited schools in this country, and you probably don't have much in-depth knowledge even about those schools.
Sure, you've heard the term "Ivy League"—but do you know what it means? You probably recognize the names Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Oxford, but could you identify their differences and similarities? (Pop quiz for Americans: Which one's not in the United States?) Can you list every public college and university campus in your home state, and do you know their particular strengths? (To be fair, that's a much easier question to answer in some states than in others.)
This is a brainstorming stage. Use the heck out of the internet. Focus on putting schools on your list. Talk to your teachers, your parents, your parents' friends. You can try asking your high school guidance counselor, but they're probably not going to tell you much you haven't already heard from someone else. When you start going in circles, or when you've got a nice fat list of several dozen schools that caught your interest for one reason or another, you're ready to start the process of IDENTIFYING, RESEARCHING, and ELIMINATING.
"What if I don't have time to do all this?"
If you left things to the last minute, and deadlines are looming, cut down on the brainstorming phase. If you already have a number of schools in mind, make that your starting list. Figure out which school is your safety and make sure you have everything taken care of for that school—essays, transcripts, letters of reference. If you're going crazy and you feel like everything is falling apart or you just can't find a safety you would be happy attending, consider taking a year off of school and doing some volunteering. Taking a "gap year" is a whole other subject with its own risks and rewards, which I won't go into right now; but if you made some mistakes and now you can't possibly finish your applications in time, you're not doomed to fail at life. Learn your lesson, don't make those mistakes in the following year, and you'll be just fine. Waiting a year to get into a school where you can be happy is far better than going to a school you don't like, just because you missed a bunch of deadlines in high school and you think something horrible will happen if you don't go to college right now!
Remember, there is nearly always more than one way of doing things. I hope this post is helpful to anyone who goes searching for it, and feedback is more than welcome from applicants, students, educators, administrators... Basically anyone who's not a dromaeosaur.
1 You might not eliminate schools in every step, especially as your list gets smaller, and that's fine. Sometimes you might find new information about a school you had eliminated, and decide to put it back on the list. If you're having trouble eliminating schools, you either need to gather more information or use stricter criteria. Taking tours, discussing your plans with friends and family, and even calling up a school on the phone when you can't figure something out from internet or library research are all useful tools for gathering information.
2 Be conservative with this estimate, especially if you're applying to more than five or six schools. If you think you can just barely manage getting in a dozen applications, it would almost certainly be better to only put in eight and spend 50% more time on each one.
3 A safety is a school that you know you can afford and that you're fairly certain will offer you admission. A reach is a more competitive school that you think might offer you admission, if all the right pieces fall into place.
4 One exception to this rule is for those who are going into a very specific technical or professional field (such as culinary arts, for example). In this case, you may not have many schools from which to choose and your safety may not be particularly competitive, or it may even be open-admission. Another exception is for transfer applicants, who often have a much better idea of their goals and options, and may have a guarantee of admission to one or more schools.