The primary challenge you face when picking the right colleges to apply to is reduction. There are approximately 2,300 four-year degree-granting colleges in the US so you’re starting with a huge pool of colleges to choose from and need to narrow that list down to a tiny fraction: the specific colleges you’ll apply to. In order to go from a big list to a small list, you’ll need to have filters so you can systematically and confidently eliminate options. Here’s a quick overview of how we at The Spike Lab approach this process with our students.
Step 1: Full List
The Full List includes every college that could work for you. To create your Full List, do a search of the topics that you’re interested in studying (if you already know them) and see what the national rankings are for those specific topics. Your Full List should probably include many of the top ten colleges in each field that you’re interested in studying. Word of warning, be sure to research only undergraduate rankings since many of the rankings are buoyed by a powerhouse graduate program. If you’re reading this and you’re saying to yourself, “But I have no idea what I want to study!” Don’t worry, you’re not alone. You should either do some soul-searching now to focus in more on a few interest areas (see our blog post about discovering your passions), or apply to Liberal Arts colleges whose curriculum and course requirements are designed for a more general education.
Your Full List will probably vary in size between 30 to 50 schools. If you have less than 30, you’re probably already filtering by likelihood of admittance. If you have more than 50, you might be including too many topics. If you’re stuck and you want a very general place to start, you can download for free The Spike Lab’s College Full by clicking here. This is the same Full List that we use with most of our students.
Step 2: Long List
The Long List contains all of the schools that you’re going to examine closely. We usually recommend our students to narrow it down to approximately 18 colleges. To create your Long List, think about your preferences and expectations when it comes to college — especially the preferences that matter the most to you. Education quality and cost are often the preference types that matter the most to students. However other factors can also matter a lot. For example, do you prefer a school in a big city? Are you adverse to very cold weather? Do you expect a big name brand school? Eliminate all of the schools on the Full List that don’t sufficiently match your preferences and expectations.
Of the schools that remain, think about selectivity. Some of these schools are more selective than others, so you want to be strategic and pick some schools that are really hard to get into, some that are really easy to get into, and some in between. We call these your Reach (it’ll be hard and risky to get in), Match (you’re around the same level, but it’s not a sure thing), and Safety (it’s a safe bet that you’ll get in).
But how do I know if a school is really a match for me? Great question! There are actually a lot of variables when it comes to selectivity, which include but are not limited to: standardized test scores, GPA, undergrad admittance rate, and even the overall number of international applicants. In general, it’s important to look at the profile of the most recent incoming freshman class. When it comes to scores (ACT, GPA, SAT II) it’s all about being the same or higher than than the average. No colleges will admit this, but there are usually quotas for international students in some way shape or form, so the total number of international applicants will definitely be a factor.
If you prefer to think numerically, you can generally break the list into thirds.
- Reach: Probability of admittance < 30%
- Match: 30% < Your probability of admittance < 70%
- Safety: Probability of admittance > 70%
To calculate your chances (purely based on academics), you can google search “[the name of the school] prepscholar admissions requirements” for a comprehensive but broad overview of all the requirements for that school. Towards the bottom of the page is an admissions calculator based on ACT/SAT and GPA.
Step 3: Short List
The Short List contains all of the schools that you will actually be applying to in the Fall of your senior year of high school. To narrow it down to your final list of ~8 schools, you’ll have to go beyond the typical research tools. You can only learn so much about a school though passive research on the Internet. You’ll eventually have to “experience” the college to know for sure. You’d never buy a car by just reading a lot about it. You’d go for a test drive; college is no different. The best thing to do is go visit the colleges. However, for most international students, traveling to each prospective college is prohibitively expensive and time consuming. If it’s not an option — or if you can’t visit all the schools you’re interested in — then you’ll need to find another way to “experience” the college. Since colleges are fundamentally communities of people, the next best option is to meet alumni and staff from the college. These are people whose identities have been significantly shaped by the colleges they went to or are working at. To meet these people, you’ll need to work a muscle that you probably never knew you had: your networking muscle!
Networking is all about connecting with people and both giving and getting help from them. As a high school student, you probably don’t yet have a very big network, but it’s never too early to start! You can network by phone, email, Skype, or whatever you and your new contact are comfortable with. By talking to current students, alumni, and even professors, you’ll be able to get a much more accurate and detailed understanding of the college in a way that online statistics, blog posts, information, and other online information can never match. This is the phase when most students want to develop a feel for the different colleges and not just think about it purely rationally — based on the statistics.
Your Short List should be around eight schools. Why eight? You don’t want to apply too many schools because:
- Each application takes a lot of time, and students who apply to many schools often sacrifice quality. Colleges can usually tell if you are using the same application for many colleges and it’ll indicate to them that their school (their community) is not one of your top picks. Even if they can’t tell that you’re repurposing your application for multiple colleges, the application won’t be as personalized, and therefore not as effective in communicating why you’re a perfect ‘fit’ for that particular college.
- There are some very real financial costs to take into account. For example, the average application fee for Ivy League colleges is $80 so if you apply to 10 colleges, it’ll cost you $800!
Depending on your year of graduation, how you approach these strategies will be different. If you’re currently in 11th grade (高三), you’ll want to start right away. If you’re currently in middle school (國中), you can draw out the steps and really take your time, especially on steps two and three. Even if you’re currently applying for colleges, it couldn’t hurt to quickly think through your college list using this process.