Creating A College List

The Eight Rules of Building a Balanced College List

Follow these rules to create a balanced college list and make sure that you have affordable college options

1. Safety-Target-Reach

Safety colleges are colleges where you are well above the average GPA & ACT/SAT scores and where you are very sure of being admitted.

Target colleges are institutions where you are in the middle 50% of GPA & ACT/SAT scores. You have a good chance of being admitted, but it's not a sure thing.

Finally, you should take a shot at some reach colleges-- colleges where you probably won't get into, but it's definitely worth a shot!

2. Public & Private

It's very important to apply to the right mix of public & private universities. We recommend applying to at least 3 public universities in your home state (a safety, a target, and a reach school) so that you have financially safe options. However, its also a good idea to apply to affordable private universities as well. Sometimes private schools can be just as affordable as public colleges, so do the net price calculators and give private colleges a shot as well.

3. Fit = Visit

Look for colleges that are your academic match & that fit you socially, academically, and based on location & environment. In other words, don't just consider where you can get in. Visiting the school and seeing how you like the other students and the campus atmosphere is also really important. At the same time, don't just apply to a local college where you feel comfortable. Also apply to colleges where the majority of students match your academic abilities.

4. Apply to 5-12 universities (at least 3)

Three is the minimum (a safety, target, & reach pubic, in-state university), but I recommend applying to at least 5 because I believe that there is value to applying to a couple private colleges as well. Students looking to study out-of-state, who are looking for the most competitive & selective colleges, and those with special circumstances (such as DACA status) should apply to more universities, usually 8-12.

5. Apply Early for the Best Chance of Admission

College acceptance gets more competitive every year. For most colleges, your chances improve if you apply through early decision (binding) or early action (non-binding). For the best chance of getting admitted to the most selective colleges in the country, apply to your top choice through early decision, and (if you don't get in), apply to your 2nd choice through early decision II. You should also apply to all of your public college options by their early action deadline for maximal financial aid consideration!

6. Financial Safety is a must!

If paying for college is a concern for your family, then you should apply to at least one financial safety option. What does this mean?

financial safety = an affordable safety college

A) a college that you know you will be accepted to (safety)

B) a college that you know you will be able to afford (affordable)

Usually financial (affordable) safety colleges are in-state public universities, especially ones in commuting distance. However, some private colleges that are in commuting distance can also be affordable safety colleges.

7. Know your EFC and your ability to pay!

EFC= Expected Family Contribution

Basically, this is the amount that many colleges will expect your family to be able to pay for one year of college. You will get when you complete the FAFSA and you can also estimate it ahead of time using the FAFSA Forecaster.

Ability to Pay is your family's ability to pay for each year of college and it is based on your family finances.

If your EFC matches closely with your family's ability to pay for college, then college affordability is much simpler.

However, if your EFC is much higher than your family's actual ability to pay for college, then things can get more complicated.

8. Understand your state!

Although the general advice is that in-state public universities are generally the financial safety options for lower-income students, the affordability of public universities varies by state.

Some states have generally very affordable public universities, while others do not. Your application strategy should change depending on which state you live in. For more, see our page on Public Affordability.

Academic & Financial Match + Fit = A Balanced College List

Academic & Financial Match

Academic & Financial Match

College Fit

College Fit


College Basics

Big picture concepts for making a college list and applying to college.

Make your College List

Fill in each square for a balanced college list!

These charts can help you visualize your college list and make sure that you are applying to the right number of public, in-state universities (3-5), as well as private or out-of-state public universities (2-8).

Remember, that it's vital to fill in each square with the correct number of universities. If you don't include a public safety school, then you risk not having an affordable back-up option.

If you don't include target private options, than you aren't leaving great college options on the table.

If you don't include reach colleges on your list, then you aren't pushing yourself to apply to the top colleges in the the U.S.!

How to Search for Colleges?

The Big Four: The Main Criteria you should consider

Distance from home, college size, and location: urban, suburban, or rural?

Can you get in?

Will this college be affordable?

What colleges are strong in your academic interests?

The Complete College Search Tool

Download the Excel or make a copy of this tool and save it to your Google Drive. You can then filter by each of these categories to narrow down your college list.

Complete College Search (for students)

College Map

Filter based on selectivity, affordability, location, and major to find your college list!