How to Create a Great College List

How to Create a Great College List

This post was informed by podcast episode 109 with Steven Antonoff (Author, College Match and The College Finder) and episode 110 with Ted Fiske (Author, The Fiske Guide to Colleges). You can hear those episodes by clicking here and here.

To download a printable PDF version of this article, click here.

Good news: there are more than 4,500 colleges and universities in the US. Even better news: most schools accept most students, with the national average at 65.8% in 2014 (source). But which of the 4,500 is right for you? High school counselors can be a wonderful support during the college process and many specialize in developing college lists. There are also many private counselors who can help you develop a list and, if you can afford to hire one, I recommend it, and here’s why I think that’s a good idea. (Find one near you here and here.) But if your high school counselor is too busy and you can’t afford a private counselor, this article will show you how to develop a great list online, for free. There are two parts to this process:

Part 1: How do I figure out what I’m looking for?

When I asked Steven Antonoff, who literally wrote the book on this process, for the best way for students to spend one hour discovering their college preference, he advised going somewhere quiet, like the top of a mountain, and really thinking about two things: who you are and what do you want? That could work, if you have a mountain nearby.

But if you don’t happen to have a mountain nearby, I recommend the 80-question “Self-Survey for the College Bound” in Steven’s book, The College Match, and not because he is paying me to say that but because it is awesome. But say you’re unable to buy the book (or just too lazy) and just want the worksheet? Get this: he gives it away on his website.

Click here to download the Self-Survey
for the College Bound

And if you want to learn more about yourself, use these:

These aren’t meant to be exhaustive, says Dr. Antonoff, but instead meant to start a conversation. Complete these exercises over the course of an afternoon and you’ll have begun that conversation.

What are some other ways to get to know your interests and preferences?

Dr. Antonoff and I both like Do What You Are and I’m a big fan of YouScience. I also recommend the “Sizing Yourself Up” section at the start of the Fiske Guide to Colleges (more on that in a moment) and on the podcast, Dr. Antonoff mentions a half-dozen other great self-exploration tools, including Knowdell’s card sort, the True Colors survey, and O*NET online, all of which you’ll find links to on the show notes page at this link.

Once you’ve spent some time thinking about your interests and preferences, it’s time to start thinking about...

Part 2: Where do I start finding schools?

I say use to search according to your interests.

Why College Express? Because after 30 years spent eating, sleeping and breathing colleges, Steven Antonoff published his amazing set of lists in his book The College Finder (which I recommend if you like reading books with actual pages) but they are available (and searchable!) at So you can type in anything from “Schools for the Free Spirit” to “Great Private Colleges for the B Student” and you’ll get results. It’s pretty much my favorite resource ever.

Another thing I love is that Steven doesn’t rank schools, which is pretty tough to do anyway.

Here, I’ll make it even easier for you. Check out The Amazing College List below. All the links are clickable.

What do I do next?

1. Notice which colleges are coming up repeatedly.
Example: maybe you’ve never heard of Brandeis, but you see it on the lists for “Colleges with Excellent Political Science Programs,” “Colleges with Fine Music Programs,” and “More Colleges for Creative Writers” (and you want to major in Poly Sci, you play the violin and like to write poems in your spare time). Put it on your list. Which list? This one:

2. Make a copy of this Google spreadsheet.
How? Go to “File” and click “Make a copy...

Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 7.42.43 PM.png

3. Type your list of schools into that doc, like this:  


Share this list with anyone who is helping you (your counselor, friend, or parent) using the “Share” button in the top right corner.

And list a bunch, like 15-20. You’ll whittle it down. How? Through research.

Any favorite sites for researching schools?

Stay on and type in the school name. Then click “Lists” to see what other lists that school is on.

For the pro perspective, go to where for $20 you can get online access to the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which is (ask any counselor) the go-to guide for college research. This $20 is optional, but totally worth it. Why else should you get this book? You’ll find out in podcast episode #110, which you can listen to here.  

For the student perspective, go to where you can read real students’ opinions on their schools. But don’t just read 1-2 reviews, read a bunch of them, in particular the “What’s the stereotype of students at your school?” and “Is the stereotype true?” You’ll get a sense of the school vibe pretty quick.

How many schools should I apply to?

Pick ten schools. Why ten? Because that allows you to divide your list like this:

  • 1 Wild Card (1-10%)
  • 3 Low Chance of Acceptance (11%-25% chance of acceptance)
  • 3 Medium Chance (26%-60% chance)
  • 3 High Chance (61%+ chance)

Keep searching and researching until you’re in love with all ten – yes, even the “high chance” schools where you’ll likely get in. (Bonus tip: If you’re applying to the University of California schools, count them as one, since the application and personal insight questions will be the same for all of them.)

How do I know my chances of getting in?

You can find the general acceptance rates on many sites, but I recommend using

Why Parchment? Because you can enter more specific info on yourself: in addition to GPA and test scores, you can also add extra info--extracurriculars, leadership, hardship--basically details that will give you a slightly more accurate sense of how you compare. How much more accurate? It’s tough to say, but it will give you at least a sense of whether it’s a low/medium/high chance of acceptance or a Wild Card.

Why trust Parchment? Because it’s the transcript-sending service for many thousands of students--both when they’re sending the initial transcripts and when they send the final transcript, confirming students’ acceptance--so the site knows who was actually accepted where (because in many cases they send the final transcripts to the schools where students ultimately enroll).

Colleges For Students Studying…