If you are in 9th, 10th, or 11th grade, you have probably already started to formulate your college list. Traditional starting points for generating college lists are college rank, geographic location, and financial aid offer. After all, if you live in the Boston area and have a 3.5 or higher GPA, chances are very small that you would be interested in attending a school that no one has ever heard of in South Dakota—no offense intended to the Universities of South Dakota or Sioux Fall—regardless of the financial aid package they may offer.
Therefore, it makes sense to prioritize your goals. Do you want to go to a school near your home, one that is most affordable, or the highest ranked college anywhere in the country—or in the world. In some cases, you might be able to get all three in which case you have hit the jackpot! That possibility is far more likely if you are from a region like Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or Chicago that has many excellent choices and generous financial aid opportunities.
Regardless of how you start your search, your college list should be made up of some schools you are likely to get into, some schools that you might get into, and some schools that you are not very likely to get into. Traditionally, these are referred to as safeties, targets, and reaches. Chances are that any school list generated by your school counselor is going to contain far more safeties than reaches. These lists tend to be quite conservative and not very aspirational. To me, this has never made sense. Why? Because the very nature of a safety school is that you are likely to get in but don’t want to go. How many of these kinds of schools do you really want in your list? Not very many. So, a much better idea is to populate your list with a few safeties, several targets, and several reaches. A good place to start your search is on the free website www.mycollegelist.com which is a free service of Avalon Admission.
Next, you should conduct significant research on each college. You might be interested in the campus culture, the size, and whether it is a university or liberal arts college. On this latter point, both have their advantages. Universities tend to have a wider set of course offerings since they also encompass graduate schools across a wide array of programs. Liberal arts colleges tend to have smaller classes and students tend to form closer relationships both with other students and with their professors. While the experiences tend to be quite different, one is not better than the other for all students. However, it is best to understand the differences and figure out which one makes more sense for you.
As far as geographic location goes, this tends to be an overrated consideration. Once you begin college, at least 90% of your time will be spent on campus. Living near a big city might be attractive, but chances are you’re not going to get into that city very often. Conversely, a rural campus typically offers a great variety of activities such as concerts, movies, parties, sports, and impromptu group activities. In the middle (figuratively) of rural and the city campuses are suburban campuses. Small cities or towns where colleges are located are referred to as college towns which often cater to the tastes and needs of college students. Here, you often find stores, restaurants, and entertainment facilities frequented by local college students.
Once you start to formulate your college list, I strongly advise that you go visit as many colleges as possible. Furthermore, make yourself the strongest possible candidate by improving your grades, your test scores, and by boosting your demonstrated interest profile for colleges on your list. Get on their mailing lists. Tour their campuses. Attend college fairs and visit them at their booths or tables. If you expect to apply for financial aid, be sure to fill out the FAFSA form and the CSS profile.
It Is never too early to start the college search and admission process. In fact, the earlier you begin, the more likely you are to be successful since you can use the extra time to boost your academic, extracurricular, and demonstrated interest profiles. Some other things you can do to elevate your candidacy include nurturing excellent relationships with your 10th grade and 11th grade teachers (for recommendations), find some meaningful community service, seek out leadership opportunities, and prepare for your standardized tests which you should take early and often, if necessary.
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