109: How to Figure Out Which School is Right for You



I first met Steven Antonoff at a NACAC Conference when I heard him telling a story about how he used to spend his spare time reading the Fiske Guide cover-to-cover--in fact, he’d do it while running on a treadmill--and I thought to myself, Who does that? That’s amazing.

Needless to say, Steven Antonoff is a student of colleges. There’s a reason his email (and website) is “School Buff.” He has spent more than 30 years building his knowledge of educational options. And not only is he the recipient of the award given annually to the person who has contributed the most to developing the profession of independent educational consulting… the award is named after him.

I consider him a giant of the college admissions world, a kind and generous mentor, and a friend.

On this episode we discuss:

  • How many schools students should apply to and when is best to start the process?
  • An amazing list of resources for helping students get to know themselves better
  • What is the highest-impact hour that someone could spend developing a college list? (The answer may surprise you.)
  • What do parents and students miss out on if they only use US News and World Report?
  • What Steven listens for specifically when he's helping a student develop a list
  • What terms Steven uses instead of “reach,” “match” and “back-up” for schools on a list
  • We play a game where Steven helps me develop a college list on the fly based on a few of my preferences (something, he points out, he would never do without more information, by the way)… but he plays along and it’s neat to hear the master at work.


Who is Steven Antonoff? [0:30]
Why Steven’s email address ends in “schoolbuff” [5:10] 
Tell us about College Match: Why did you write it, who did you write it for? [6:33]
What are your favorite myths to bust about starting a college list? [8:05]
The problem with high-profile stories about atypical students getting into Ivy League schools [12:00]
How do you help students decide what kinds of colleges they might want to apply to? [15:00]
Questions that Steven likes to ask students as conversation starters [16:00]
How Steven gets students to think about who they are, their future, and the people around them [15:06]
How can students from other countries (who can’t get his book) go through his process? [19:10]
More self-reflection resources [20:29]
Using the study of multiple intelligences helps students better understand themselves [21:55]
Self-knowledge questionnaire and College planning values assessment [22:08]
Knowdell’s Card Sorts: the card packs called Career Values, Motivated Skills and Occupational Interests [21:34]
Career Inventories: Do What You Are [21:48]
O*Net for career information [22:57]
The Search Institute: produces 40 questionnaires that measure development assets for teenagers [23:16]
Authentic Happiness” Questionnaire [23:55]
What does it take to become a Certified Educational Planner (CEP)? [24:29]
When should the college search process begin? [27:00]
When helping a student develop a list, is there a certain factor that students/parents should consider, but many don’t? [29:56]
Resource: Educate to Career, which ranks schools by how much they promote access to career goals [32:12]
Two myths about small colleges [33:38]
What is the highest-impact hour that someone could spend developing a college list? [34:23]
The College Finder: How students can find the exact colleges that they’re looking for [37:21]
The amazing variety of lists that can be found in the book [40:29]
How were the lists compiled? [40:56]
What do parents and students miss out on if they only used US News or World Report? [40:50] [47:24]
Why not rank the schools listed? [48:32]
Ever get emails from schools that feel they should have been on a particular list but weren’t? [50:42]
A game: Steven helps Ethan develop a college list based on Ethan’s preferences… [51:29]
What Steven listens for when helping a student develop a list [59:45]
What’s the measure of a great college list? How do you know when your search is over? [1:01:28]
How many schools should students apply to? [1:03:48]
What does Steven call “reach,” “match” and “back-up” schools? [1:05:41]
Show and Tell [1:10:59]
Steven: The group of toys that he uses for counseling [1:10:15]
Ethan: “How to Create a Great College List” post [1:11:23]
Steven, why do you do what you do? [1:13:08]