Rising Seniors: Time to Shift Gears and Finalize Your College List

Now that junior year is done and summer is here, it is time to shift gears when it comes to the college admissions process. 

For the past three years, you have been busy building your credentials.  You have been striving for the best grades and best test scores.  You have been pursuing activities, hobbies and interests.  If all has gone well, you have amassed a good record.  There is no doubt that the quality of your record will determine the likelihood of your admission to college.  So your focus on your record has been completely appropriate UP TO NOW.  But here’s what most students miss:  no matter what your record, there are thousands of others students with basically that same record.  So even though a good record is necessary to get into a selective college, it is not enough. You have to present that good record in such a way that you stand out from all the others with similar records.  You do that with a stand-out application.

Producing stand-out applications takes time and energy.  We find that most students spend 100 or more hours on their applications.  That means you cannot wait until next fall to get to work on your applications.  You need to get to work on them now.  That's why it is time to shift gears.

Of course, in order to begin working on your applications, you need to know where you are going to apply.  That’s why the first step to shifting gears is to finalize your college list.  Here are the steps we suggest you take over the next few weeks in order to get your list finalized and begin shifting gears. 

  • Balance your list in terms of selectivity.  What are your chances for admission to the various colleges on your list?  You want a mix between colleges where you have a high chance of admissions (safeties), a good chance of admission (matches), and a low chance of admission (reaches).  We believe a balanced list follows this ratio.  1 safety:3 matches:1 reach.


  • Confirm the affordability of the colleges on your list.  Can you afford to attend the colleges on your list, if admitted and if you obtain an appropriate financial aid package?  There is no reason to spend your time and energy applying to colleges you cannot afford to attend. 


  • Narrow your list to no less than 5 and no more than 15 colleges.  We believe the optimal number is really 10 colleges, but you may have good reasons for applying to fewer or more than that.  We set the minimum at 5 colleges because we think everyone should have some choices and everyone should have at least one reach college and one safety college in the mix.  You can’t really accomplish that with fewer than 5 colleges.  We set the maximum at 15 because we think it is really the maximum number of applications someone can do well.

Each of these steps requires research, reflection and decision making, so finalizing your college list is not easy.  But it is necessary.  Dithering about it will only make it less likely that you actually get into the college of your choice.  So get it done!

Comments or Questions?

Having trouble shifting gears?  Not sure how to choose between college x and college y?  Need some guidance about how to assess your odds of admission?  Have a good resource to share about affordability?  Post your comments and questions here and you’ll get a response.

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad.  Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)