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Sep 14 2017
by Shelby Lenhart

7 Steps to Help You Narrow Down Your College List

By Shelby Lenhart - Sep 14 2017

As a junior in high school, it felt like there were a hundred different schools I was thinking about applying to. On paper, they all seemed like they had the potential to be my dream school. Every school had something unique that made it desirable. Something that made it seem like the place where I wanted to spend the next four years.

The problem with loving a hundred different schools? It’s expensive to apply, with individual applications ranging anywhere from $40 to $100. On top of that, if you did get accepted to all of the schools, the process of making the decision would be even harder. Narrowing down your college list can also help to relieve much of the stress of the college application process and can help you focus your goals more closely to what your potential schools are looking at.

Narrowing down your college list can be incredibly difficult, and can seem greatly overwhelming. There are, however, several tips and questions to cut off the fat from your mile-long university list.

1. Where’s the money?

The average college tuition costs about $33,000, amassing an average of $301,000 worth of loan debt to be repaid within the next few decades. These massive figures can be terrifying to think about but can be handy to think about when looking at colleges. Many schools offer a scholarship aid calculator to help estimate money that does not need to be paid back, as well as a financial aid calculator for money that does. Many websites also offer a student loan calculator to see, based on your scholarships, income and the school you want to attend, what your student loans might look like further down the road. Figuring out how much you can get from your school, as well as the future for your finances, can be incredibly helpful in narrowing down your list. If your school doesn’t offer a large scholarship (normally based on test scores like SAT or ACT and GPA), but has a whopping tuition, that might lead to greater student debt later on. 

2. Can you do long distance?

Preliminary college lists often include universities that scatter the map. We have far-reaching dreams of going to college somewhere far away, where we can reinvent ourselves or experience something totally different than what we are used to. This is all well and good, encouraged even, but it does come with a price. If your hometown is all the way across the country from your prospective school, an additional cost that now must be calculated is the cost of transportation home to visit family for vacations, or in the event of an emergency. Airfare (and sending luggage cross-country) is not cheap, so taking the price into consideration can help to make a decision. On top of that, moving into the school has to be done either as a long road trip, or requires many bulk things like clothes or furniture to be shipped to the school, as most airlines only allow a limited amount of additional luggage. Pieces of advice like this are by no means supposed to discourage you from looking at schools on the other side of the country, but to add an additional piece of information to help you figure out which school is best suited for you

3. Find your people.

Moving to a new place can be overwhelming, especially when it feels like you're starting at the bottom of the social chain as an adult who also happens to be a teenager. Schools often boast their various social groups on their websites, or have links to Facebook pages. Look at clubs that are available on campus, as well as websites that offer information on the school's demographic. If you're looking for a school that is more accepting of a certain identity like sexuality, look to see if they have a club for your personal needs or find a website that can provide the specific percentages for various demographics to make sure you never feel like you're alone. Ensuring that there are groups on campus that meet your interests is a simple task, and can help you remove schools that don't have the sort of support that you would find necessary for your college career. Many schools also have therapy or wellness centers on campus that offer assistance for students seeking help with mental illness or help dealing with depression or anxiety. Look for schools that will offer the right sort of social climate for you to thrive. 

Another important thing to look at in terms of social aspects of the school is the size. Figuring out whether you feel more comfortable in a more intimate classroom setting, or a larger lecture-style class is important, and can be done by simply looking up the student-teacher ratio at the school. 

4. Grab a passport.

Many schools offer a study-abroad program, but have a limited number of countries where students can go. Some schools also offer a smaller-scale versions of studying abroad, such as two-week exchange programs, while others can offer full semesters in another country. If traveling is something that you believe will be important to your college experience, look into the kind of programs your potential school has. Get rid of schools that don't have the programs you're looking for, and prioritize the ones that do. Even if you won't be studying abroad right away, it's important to make sure that whatever you choose to do within the next four years will be readily available to you. 

5. Keep your goals in mind.

At this point in your college search, you probably have a general understanding of your test scores and GPA, and can start looking more closely at where you fall in terms of acceptance rates. Now, having a "reach" school is encouraged, because you are worth more than a set of numbers, but it is also important to understand that some schools are entirely more selective. Many websites offer the average GPA of the current freshman class, as well as the SAT or ACT scores. Other websites also allow you to calculate your chance of getting in with your GPA and test scores. Make sure you don't limit yourself to schools with only high acceptance rates or only very low acceptance rates either. Look into a range of schools, but make sure you spend your application money on the school that you want to attend and have the best chance of getting into. Getting turned down from a school is completely normal, however, so don't stress if later on in the process, it does happen. 

6. Look at what's next.

A school is more than its reputation, but oftentimes the results of the alumnus can be an indicator of the sort of success that various majors from the schools have. When looking at schools for a specific major, look at their alumni. Don't base your decision on the school solely on whether or not they have notable graduates, but look at the alumni network and inquire about the relationships between students, their professors and the sort of industries they become involved in. Figure out if you want to intern with any companies, and look into the relationships that the school has with the companies you have in mind. Do they offer paid internships? Do they offer summer internships? Do they have a high percentage of students from that school under their employment? Working out the success that students from the school have, and the assistance from the school to ensure it, can help you decide whether a school is worth your time or not. 

7. Take in the space.

Every college campus is different. Every school has their special tradition, or the best hangout spot for students. Every college has a favorite restaurant that the students frequent the most. When looking at schools, look at what there is to do on and off campus, as well as at the campus itself. Many schools in cities like New York and Philadelphia do not have a specific campus space, but buildings spread around the city. At schools like this, many restaurants and stores have partnerships with these schools made specifically for students. At more traditional colleges, there are often restaurants and cafes located on the campus property. Ask students of the school where their favorite places to eat are, or what the students at the school do in their free time. 

On top of looking at the off-campus activities, look at the size of the campus. Figure out how long it would take to get from class to class, and consider how much walking you're willing to do in the seasons that the specific college experiences. Be conscious of the space that you are potentially going to live in. 

Narrowing down a college list can be a daunting task, especially when there are so many amazing colleges in the country, and even out of the country, to choose from. Making sure that your money is well-spent on the perfect school for you is not always the easiest thing to do, but there are plenty of important aspects to take in. Picking your top five schools is often a safe bet, but cutting that number from a much higher one, like 30, for example, takes an observant eye and the dedication to look into the smaller details of the school. Even if your list gets cut in half instead of to a top five, you're still halfway to finding your ideal college. 

Lead Image Credit: Unsplash

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Shelby Lenhart - Marymount Manhattan College

Shelby is a freshman at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. She is getting her BA in Theatre Arts with a concentration in Playwriting. She also works with fellow writer Flynn Osman for the blog Barefaced (

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