How to Build a College List

Building a college list is the first step of the application process. Before you can map out deadlines, await acceptance offers, and evaluate financial aid offers, you’ll have to decide which colleges and universities you’d be interested in attending.

We recommend starting to think about your college list as early as possible, whether you’re a high school student or preparing to transfer from a community college. Here are the three steps that the Foundation’s educational advisers use when working with Cooke Scholars:


1. Do your research.

Be proactive and get to know school staff and the resources they provide. At most high schools, your school counselor will be the primary expert. Academic advisers and transfer coordinators can help you build your list if you’re currently attending a community college. Building relationships with these specialists can help you identify opportunities to edit or add to your list.

College search platforms can provide detailed information about institutions. Popular search platforms include:

In addition to researching information about different colleges and universities, many of these tools also allow you to save lists and receive targeted updates about the schools you’re interested in.


2. Think about fit.

It’s important to look for institutions that are a good fit for your personality, preferences, and professional goals. This means considering factors such as:

  • Location
  • School size
  • Research university or liberal arts college
  • Academic programs and majors
  • Extracurricular activities
  • What you did or didn’t like in high school
  • Price

You can find information about many of these aspects using college search tools, but the best way to get a sense of a school is to make a campus visit. Many colleges offer fly-in programs, which fund or reimburse the travel costs of visiting. College Greenlight has compiled a Complete List of Programs database that lists dates and application deadlines for fly-in programs at various colleges and universities.

Virtual tours are another option to consider. These walk-throughs often feature campus buildings, housing, and other popular spaces and local landmarks. You can look for virtual tours on the website of each college you’re considering, or explore the tours created by developers such as YouVisit, Campustours, and eCampusTours.


3. Find balance.

Be sure to build a balanced list that includes institutions that you are “likely” to be admitted to, as well as some that are on “target” for you, and some that might be a bit of  a “reach.” Aim to have 2-4 options from each category:

  • Reach Schools: You fall at or below their academic profile in terms of grades and standardized testing (if required). The Cooke Foundation strongly encourages high-achieving students to apply to rigorous, highly selective schools, as these institutions often have more generous financial aid packages, comprehensive student supports, and provide exposure to greater postgraduate opportunities and overall earnings.
  • Target Schools: You fit their academic profile in terms of grades and standardized testing (if required) and the acceptance rate is around 30%-60%.
  • Likely Schools: You are at or above their academic profile in terms of grades and standardized testing (if required) and the acceptance rate is 60% or higher.