The Final College List – Preparing for College Applications

Published by Wendy Nelson on

This post was originally written in May of 2015 when my middle daughter was finishing her Junior year of high school. I am happy to report that in May of 2019, she finished her undergraduate degree (in 3 years instead of 4, saving us a whole year of tuition and room & board!). I have updated some of the information below.

My middle daughter has a week left before the end of her Junior year of high school.  She will soon be a “rising senior.”  That means that college applications are only a few months away.  She has recently decided what she wants to major in and this has helped with narrowing the final college list.  However, this isn’t critical.  It’s fine if your student doesn’t know what to major in.  It just means that you want to look at schools that offer lots of options and a path to help him or her figure out a major.

I have helped my daughter work towards a final list of schools she will apply to.  Her list includes 5 schools.  She has her top school figured out and if she could, she would only apply there, but that is not realistic because the program she is interested in only accepts about 30% of applicants.  Our next step is making sure she visits the other 4 schools before college applications are due.

College Applications10 Ways Parents Can Help in Figuring Out the Final College List and Preparing for College Applications

  1. Understand your Expected Family Contribution and what the Net Price Calculators indicate you should expect to pay at the college’s on the list.
  2. Make sure your student understands where you stand on paying for college – how much you will pay, how much you expect them to contribute and what your position is on student loans.
  3. Make sure your student has separated “wants” from “needs” in terms of what are must-haves in a college and what are nice-to-haves. The #1 must have should be the major(s) your student is interested in.
  4. Make sure you understand your student’s college “wish list” with respect to things like school size, location, potential majors, and other qualities he or she wants in a school. While these shouldn’t be the final deciders, they should be kept in mind when assessing each college’s overall “fit” for your student.
  5. Help in narrowing down the final college list to the schools that meet the “must have” and “wish list” criteria.
  6. Attempt to schedule at least an initial visit to each school prior to when applications are due in the fall. If your student has a major in mind, be sure to visit that department.
  7. Help your student to include reach schools, target schools and safety schools on the final college list.  You want to make sure there is at least one school that’s a sure thing and a few that are pretty good bets.  It doesn’t hurt to have one or two that are a bit of a stretch.  You can base these determinations on where your student falls compared to the school’s most recent admitted student statistics for GPA and ACT or SAT scores.  This information should be fairly easy to find on the college website.  If you can’t find it, have your student contact the admissions office to obtain this information directly or work with his/her high school guidance counselor to find out.
  8. Keep track of the schools, what is required for their college applications, and their application due dates on a list.  My college search spreadsheet template can be used for this if you add a column to track application dates.  In addition, make sure you track each school’s application criteria.  this includes whether the school uses the common app or their own customized app and what the student is required to submit (transcript, test scores, recommendations, etc.).
  9. Make sure your student stays in contact with each school to display demonstrated interest.  This should include things like visits, contacting the admissions office with questions, stopping at the school’s booth at college fairs, and meeting with a rep if one comes to your student’s high school.
  10. Help your student to narrow down to a final college list that includes between 3-12 schools. Any more than this will get too difficult to manage.

Planning ahead for the final college list will avoid a lot of stress and scrambling when college applications have looming deadlines.  Plus, it will give your student time to visit and reevaluate if he or she decides not to apply to any of the schools on the list.