Category: Financial Aid

Creating a College List

by Aatina K. Shaikh


If you’re a senior in high school, a lot of the adults in your life have most likely already placed an emphasis on attending college. Senior year is the time for students to get started on the college application process. For many, this part of their lives can be daunting because college admissions are already unpredictable and on top of that, there’s a multitude of steps that must be completed before you can get to the part where you’re opening decisions left and right. Through this series, I hope to be able to guide you through those steps, so you can feel prepared and confident in your college applications. Then, you’ll be able to relax afterwards as you wait for college decisions to be released.

One of the first things students should work on is putting together a list of schools they would like to apply for. Often, the list will change as colleges are periodically added or dropped after learning more about them, which is totally normal. Don’t feel pressure to apply to a school simply because it was on your list at one point. When choosing the colleges students plan to apply to, it’s imperative they complete extensive research to decide if the colleges are good for them. Just because a school is well known or ranked high doesn’t guarantee it’s the one for you.

When researching colleges, it’s important to have about 8-12 institutions on your list in order to have a higher chance of gaining admission to a college. Placing all of your faith on 1-2 colleges is never a smart move. While it has worked for people before, it’s important to understand the importance of maximizing your chances of admission to these colleges, while also having choices in case of circumstances where financial aid is important, or the possibility of falling out of love with a college. An applicant  A good rule of thumb is to have 3-4 safeties, 3-4 targets, and 2-4 reach schools.


What is a safety, target, or reach school?

These are terms that are important to understand when deciding what colleges to add to your list. The terms above describe your likelihood of admission into the institution, which can be determined through a bit of research online. Please, don’t disregard applying to schools that fall into any of these categories, especially those safety schools because there have been many instances where students will go to their safety schools due to their financial reasons, the need to be close to home, or because they weren’t accepted to their target or reach schools.

Safety schools are institutions where your stats place you well above their average admitted student, giving you an almost guaranteed admission. Oftentimes, these are state colleges with high acceptance rates. They allow you that safety net to fall back on in case your target or reach schools don’t pan out.

Target schools are those colleges where you fall between the 25th and 75th percentile when looking at your statistics. These are colleges where you fall into the shoes of their average admitted student, allowing you almost a guarantee of admission, however, there is still a chance of rejection. It’s important to apply to these colleges when looking for a place that will support you as a student and allows you the ability to be surrounded with academically like minded individuals.

Finally, we have reach schools. These are colleges where your stats are below that of their average admitted student. Know that applying to these schools isn’t always a waste of time because there is a lot that goes into making a decision on a student, especially since many institutions have switched to a more holistic approach at reviewing students applications. These colleges are higher up on the list because you are applying with the hope you are possibly accepted, but it’s important to not hold a huge weight on their decisions. An additional note in regards to reach schools: ivies and T-20 schools (those institutions with the single digit acceptance rates) will almost always be reach schools, no matter what your stats are. These institutions accept very few people and the students in their class are incredibly diverse, so while you may be their ideal student, you still may not be accepted due to the slim admission rates.


Researching Colleges

A lot of factors go into researching colleges, though many students don’t know what to specifically look for. I will briefly summarize my top five categories that I believe are important (Cost of Attendance, Acceptance Rate, Average GPA/ACT/SAT, Diversity, and Population Size), but if something isn’t a deal breaker for you, or simply doesn’t hold as much weight, feel free to not include it within your research. There will also be categories that aren’t as relevant to deciding if the college is good for you, however, it’s smart to note. Pro tip: create a google sheet or an excel spreadsheet to store research in to look back on later. I will reference this spreadsheet a few times within this series as it will help a lot when applying to colleges and when receiving admission decisions.


Cost of Attendance (COA):

The COA of a college is imperative to know because while schools do award financial aid through grants, scholarships, and loans, we must be realistic in how much they will give. If you would be an out-of-state (OOS) student, they will most likely award you less than they would an in-state student. This applies heavily to colleges under the University of California (UC schools). They will give little to no aid to out-of-state students; so expect to take out loans or pay for the entirety of their tuition on your own.

For low-income students, take a look at colleges that are 100% need blind. They will award low-income students, full tuition or a full ride if admitted, but keep in mind, they are typically incredibly competitive. Examples of need blind colleges include the entire ivy league, Boston University, Rice University, Stanford University, MIT, and others. If you are low income, you may consider creating a category to mention how willing they are to help with financial need because while not all institutions are 100% need blind, state colleges may have similar rules for students residing within their state, or colleges may guarantee almost 100% financial needs are met. Also, please look into programs such as Questbridge if you identify as a low-income student.


Acceptance Rate:

The acceptance rate will play a big role upon which category you place the college under (safety, target, or reach). It’s great to keep an eye out in order to keep your expectations appropriate for the institution. Oftentimes, students may attempt to avoid applying to colleges with acceptance rates that are too low in order to save money.


Average GPA/ACT/SAT:

This category will allow you to create goals for your standardized scores, while also working to bump your GPA up into their threshold within the first quarter/ semester of school. A strong ACT/SAT (99th percentile score or a top 25th percentile score for the school) score makes any application stronger, but many schools are test-optional for applicants attempting to gain admission into the class of 2027, so it’s important to make a note of that as well in case you don’t have a score in this ranges. Please keep in mind, your score on the SAT or ACT does not make or break an application, nor does it define you. If it did, I’m sure they’d still look for it, however, it holds a small percentage of the decision, especially through holistic review.



This one is important for applicants looking to find a community on campus, especially if you’re likely to house on campus. It also allows for a dash of culture to enrich your time spent at the institution. A campus that is filled with diversity typically has support groups for all groups of people and is more accepting of differences, even within the student body. It also creates a safer, more comfortable environment, say, for students who identify as people of color.


Population Size:

The population size of a campus is incredibly important to your time on campus. If you’re looking for a campus where you see the same few people a day and teachers are typically more interactive with their students, you will want to find colleges with smaller population sizes because it often leads to lower faculty to student ratios. Colleges with under 5,000 students would be considered to have a smaller population size. For students who are comfortable with the idea of a busy campus bustling with life, look for campuses with large population sizes (~10,000+). If a medium sized school sounds perfect for you, where you get the best of both worlds, look for institutions with about 5,000-9,999 students.

You may even consider a category in that spreadsheet for faculty to student ratio if class size is important to you, but it isn’t mandatory and I believe it completely depends on the student’s learning size of comfort when deciding if there is a specific class size they are looking for. Both smaller or larger ratios have their advantages and disadvantages, so bear those in mind when deciding what is best for you.


After the College is Added to the List

Once you’ve decided to add a college to your list, there are a few more things you will want to look for and store somewhere in case you need to find it later on. While it may seem obvious, it’s important to keep these in mind when completing applications.


Application Deadlines:

Making a note of when applications are due allows you to create a timeline for when you begin your applications to these colleges.

There are a few types of admissions, which result in different deadlines. Early Decision (ED) is binding, meaning if you are accepted to the institution, you are required to go legally, unless there is a financial issue. The acceptance rates for early decision will be much higher than the institution’s regular decision or early action, so if there is a college you are sure you want to attend if admitted and it’s your dream school, applying ED may be the route to go. Expect application deadlines in October or November for Early Decision.

Early Action is simply applying early, with no legal binding to the school. You receive your admission decision early, though, there may be a higher acceptance rate for Early Action. Colleges may also require students to apply in the Early Action cycle in order to be considered for merit scholarships, so research if this is the case for your colleges. The application deadline for Early Action is around the same time as Early Decision, so October or November.

Regular Decision will have a later deadline and is the most competitive, but again, there is nothing binding applicants to the school. This is the most common application round, so colleges receive the majority of their applications during this round. The big advantage to this round is it’s due later (December-January), so there’s more time to perfect an application and hold more confidence in it.


Demonstrated Interest:

A select number of colleges will base their admissions decisions on demonstrated interest, so it’s important to keep in mind in order to fulfill this piece of their review. The best way to show demonstrated interest is through visiting the school, scheduling a virtual visit, and communicating with them over calls or emails. Additionally, how you interact with them on social media is important, so try to follow their Instagram accounts or their Twitter. And try to communicate with them frequently because one email simply isn’t enough. You must convince this school you are in love with them (even if you aren’t) because they will have a bias towards students who seem more excited at the prospect of attending their institution.


College Website:

This one is a given. It’s mainly in order to go back when you need to do some more research on specific programs for essays. It helps when you have a direct link because college websites are large and can be hard to navigate because they cater to many different groups of people.


Admission Counselor Contact Information:

This can be important to keep in mind when there are questions the website can’t answer. This is also a direct line of communication that is best to use when demonstrating interest outside of visits. Contacting the institution is a great way to land on their radar, however, don’t bet on this working for prestigious schools with high volumes of applicants. Research the specific admission counselor assigned to your region/location because you will be redirected to them regardless, so it’s best to email them directly for a faster response. If you aren’t able to find their email, don’t stress too much and send it to the generic one because they will most likely redirect you themselves.



Many institutions will guarantee housing for freshmen, even require it, so it’s important to make sure you are aware of these facts beforehand. If housing off-campus is important for you, this may be a deal breaker, however, for those who will rely heavily on housing on-campus, it’s reassuring to know there will be space for you. When they have a rule that freshmen are to stay on campus though, just know, there is almost always going to be a lively student body with events constantly happening to entertain the students and enrich them. The idea of leaving your parents may be nerve-wracking, but rest assured, they will try to give you a great experience while you spend your year there.


Final Thoughts:

The college application journey may seem complicated, however, I hope this series will allow you to have some peace of mind knowing the steps will be laid out for you with detailed instructions. Don’t feel that your college list has to be definite once created. You will learn more about different colleges in the coming months, so it’s okay to change what colleges you are interested in. Just make sure that as you get closer to October or November, you aren’t still constantly changing your list because this will be when writing supplements becomes really important. Keep an eye out for additions to this series to keep yourself on task and in the know this year. It can be hectic, but there are a lot of resources you can avail (I will try to mention as many as I can), so please don’t overlook them. Good luck as you begin your senior year and I hope your personal journeys through the college application process are smooth with very few bumps in the road.