Countdown to college: Tips for narrowing the college list

Take a deep breath, hit the “submit” button and then exhale.

Thousands of students are doing this every day. But, at the same time they are wondering if they really need to be applying to as many colleges as they had originally planned.

September and October produce long lists of dream schools, and right around the beginning of November, reality sets in and students begin revising their list and focusing on their favorites. It’s a lot of work between the application, the essays, personal statement, letters of recommendation, transcripts and testing.

If you’re thinking about narrowing your list, it makes sense to take these things into consideration:

1. Evaluate how successful you’ll be, if you get in. Sometimes staying in and succeeding is more challenging than being accepted in the first place. Make sure you feel comfortable with the level of competition and your ability to earn a degree. The national statistics are disillusioning; fewer than three of five students will actually earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

2. Be confident your list is balanced. It’s fine to shoot for a few of the reach schools. But generally, the more selective colleges have the more involved applications, so be prepared for the workload. Make sure the safety schools on your list are ones you would really attend if you aren’t accepted at your reach and target schools.

3. Don’t get obsessed with cost. The sticker prices can be scary, but take a look at the percentage of students that receive financial aid at every school and you might be surprised. Even if you feel you don’t qualify for need-based aid, colleges give merit aid to students they really want.

Determine your family’s EFC (Expected Family Contribution) which you can access through the FAFSA website ( and use that calculation as a guide when evaluating colleges financially.

4. Think about location. Lots of students just want to get away from home. They fantasize about attending college in sunny California or how much fun it would be to be able to ski three days a week, but they forget what it would actually be like that far away and the cost to come home for holidays and summer vacation. Don’t rule out schools that require a flight, but factor in the cost as well as the travel time.

5. Make sure you have a financial safety school. It’s a crazy economy out there, and even if your family can afford a private four-year college (with Sarah Lawrence now topping the list at more than $60,000 a year), it’s wise to have an in-state back-up.

6. Think about graduate school. More and more careers require or recommend graduate school. It’s important to think about that added expense and who is going to bear the cost: parents or students? Many students would be better off attending the best in-state public institution for their undergraduate degree and then choosing a more selective or smaller college for their graduate work.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit

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One thought on “Countdown to college: Tips for narrowing the college list

  1. Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) displaces Californians qualified for public university education at Cal. for a $50,600 payment by a foreign student. The need for transparency at UC Berkeley has never been so clear.

    UC Berkeley, # 70 Forbes ranking, is not increasing enrollment. Birgeneau accepts $50,600 foreign students at the EXPENSE of displaced qualified instate Californians (If amortization of fixed assets funded by Californians are included in foreign and out of state tuition calculations they would pay more than $100,000+ and would NOT subsidize instate tuition)

    UC Regent Chairwoman Lansing and President Yudof both agree to discriminate against Californians for the admission of foreigners. Birgeneau, Yudof, Lansing need to answer to Californians.

    Opinions make a difference; email UC Board of Regents

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