Undergraduate Applications: Making a "Short List"

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Undergraduate Applications: Making a "Short List"

Postby Bakemaster » Thu Feb 10, 2011 6:35 pm UTC

This was originally going to be a response to a user in a separate thread, but since it turned into a longer, more general lump of advice I'm putting it here in a thread of its own. The question was, in a nutshell: "How do I decide what colleges to apply to?" In answering this question, I'm drawing on my experiences as a student as well as my professional experience in undergraduate financial aid, graduate recruiting, and graduate admissions. It's important to note that this post is concerned generally with undergraduate admissions in the United States; admissions at the graduate level and/or in other countries will not be identical, and specific institutions tend to have their own quirks.
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Making a "Short List"

Coming up with a "short list" of where you're going to send your college applications is ideally a lengthy, iterative process of:
  • IDENTIFYING one particular quality you're looking for in a school;
  • RESEARCHING all the schools on your overall list to find out how well or poorly they demonstrate that quality;
  • ELIMINATING a number of schools that don't make the grade.1

It's important to first have an idea of some particular things you want out of college. You start with your top priority, usually a program or field (if you want to study engineering, you've already eliminated every university that doesn't have an engineering program), and repeat the process with the next most important thing you want in a school, until you reach your goal—a "short list" with the following qualities:

  • Attending any school on the list would enable you to pursue a career (or field of graduate study) that you find interesting.
  • You can reasonably afford the total cost in application fees, test fees, and transcript/score report fees required to apply to every school on your list.
  • You have enough time to write any essays, complete any applications, take any tests, and obtain any letters of reference required to meet every application deadline at the schools on your list.2
  • The list includes at least one "safety" and one "reach" (keeping in mind the first point above).3

Notice that so far, we haven't really talked about money issues. You can use cost of attendance as a factor in building your short list, but I would recommend making cost of attendance very low priority; leave it alone until you've run out of other good ways to narrow down your list. Why? Because in the overwhelming majority of cases you won't know for certain whether you can afford a school until you find out what financial aid and scholarships you're offered and you won't have that information until after you apply. As long as you have an affordable safety on your list, it won't be the end of the world if you have to turn down a school that didn't offer you enough financial aid.

Once your list meets the four criteria above, you're ready to begin your applications. An additional rule of thumb is that you should have more than two schools on your list, even if one's your safety and the other's your reach.4 There's no hard upper limit to the number of schools on your list, but if you're in double digits it can be pretty crazy keeping track of it all. Five or six schools is a reasonable number for most high school seniors.

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Are you ready?

The first step is to put together a list of every single college and university in the world. You've probably already done that, so let's move on to—

Okay, okay. There's no way you're starting with every single school on your list. But one thing that most high school students never consider is just how many great schools they've never heard of. By the time you reach high school you'll probably be familiar with a number of famous schools, local schools, and schools that your family, peers and teachers attended. That's a very small portion of the huge number of accredited schools in this country, and you probably don't have much in-depth knowledge even about those schools.

Sure, you've heard the term "Ivy League"—but do you know what it means? You probably recognize the names Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Oxford, but could you identify their differences and similarities? (Pop quiz for Americans: Which one's not in the United States?) Can you list every public college and university campus in your home state, and do you know their particular strengths? (To be fair, that's a much easier question to answer in some states than in others.)

This is a brainstorming stage. Use the heck out of the internet. Focus on putting schools on your list. Talk to your teachers, your parents, your parents' friends. You can try asking your high school guidance counselor, but they're probably not going to tell you much you haven't already heard from someone else. When you start going in circles, or when you've got a nice fat list of several dozen schools that caught your interest for one reason or another, you're ready to start the process of IDENTIFYING, RESEARCHING, and ELIMINATING.

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"What if I don't have time to do all this?"

If you left things to the last minute, and deadlines are looming, cut down on the brainstorming phase. If you already have a number of schools in mind, make that your starting list. Figure out which school is your safety and make sure you have everything taken care of for that school—essays, transcripts, letters of reference. If you're going crazy and you feel like everything is falling apart or you just can't find a safety you would be happy attending, consider taking a year off of school and doing some volunteering. Taking a "gap year" is a whole other subject with its own risks and rewards, which I won't go into right now; but if you made some mistakes and now you can't possibly finish your applications in time, you're not doomed to fail at life. Learn your lesson, don't make those mistakes in the following year, and you'll be just fine. Waiting a year to get into a school where you can be happy is far better than going to a school you don't like, just because you missed a bunch of deadlines in high school and you think something horrible will happen if you don't go to college right now!

Remember, there is nearly always more than one way of doing things. I hope this post is helpful to anyone who goes searching for it, and feedback is more than welcome from applicants, students, educators, administrators... Basically anyone who's not a dromaeosaur.

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1 You might not eliminate schools in every step, especially as your list gets smaller, and that's fine. Sometimes you might find new information about a school you had eliminated, and decide to put it back on the list. If you're having trouble eliminating schools, you either need to gather more information or use stricter criteria. Taking tours, discussing your plans with friends and family, and even calling up a school on the phone when you can't figure something out from internet or library research are all useful tools for gathering information.
2 Be conservative with this estimate, especially if you're applying to more than five or six schools. If you think you can just barely manage getting in a dozen applications, it would almost certainly be better to only put in eight and spend 50% more time on each one.
3 A safety is a school that you know you can afford and that you're fairly certain will offer you admission. A reach is a more competitive school that you think might offer you admission, if all the right pieces fall into place.
4 One exception to this rule is for those who are going into a very specific technical or professional field (such as culinary arts, for example). In this case, you may not have many schools from which to choose and your safety may not be particularly competitive, or it may even be open-admission. Another exception is for transfer applicants, who often have a much better idea of their goals and options, and may have a guarantee of admission to one or more schools.
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Re: Undergraduate Applications: Making a "Short List"

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Feb 10, 2011 8:31 pm UTC

As this is the sort of question that comes up an awful lot, the thread has been stickied. Later, it might also include a list of links to other relevant threads, as well as advice from other people who have a fair bit of real-life knowledge about how the whole application/admission process works.
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Re: Undergraduate Applications: Making a "Short List"

Postby johnegood » Wed Aug 24, 2011 5:50 pm UTC

I'm a father of a new senior in high school so I'm living through this process right now. Here's my two cents (actually, three points).

1. A great book to read is called Crazy U. It'll give you some perspective on the madness along with some useful information and make you laugh.

2. I had my daughter focus on school "types" and characteristics at first. I showed her Boston University, she decided that she wanted less of a City School and more of a Closed Campus. I showed her Boston College and she decided she wanted more diversity (its very Catholic and relies heavily on local kids). So then we looked in Connecticut and three very similar schools all seemed to be good for her: Wesleyan, Trinity, and Connecticut College. Etc

3. I disagree with the numbers mentioned in that you should have several "stretch" schools and maybe even several "safety" schools. The reason is stupid but it's based on the statistical reality. Every year, the average number of schools that students apply to goes up. Its a trend. This forces a different trend of lower acceptance rates by schools to make the numbers work. So, for a student to stay ahead of the curve, they should apply to more schools.

Truly stupid but that's how it works. You could of course break the cycle by going with early admission.

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Re: Undergraduate Applications: Making a "Short List"

Postby Bakemaster » Wed Aug 24, 2011 8:43 pm UTC

Thanks for the recommendation, I'll have to check that book out. The WSJ had a review that makes it sound really good.

When I was a high school senior, I applied to only one college. It was a stupid idea, but I really believed if I didn't go to this one school, I didn't want to go to college at all. This was my teenage brain fighting to avoid having to do the work that all my friends were doing—retaking the SAT to improve their scores, applying to many schools, writing many essays, and so on. Big mistake.

In my opinion, one safety and one reach is the absolute bare minimum for a high school senior applying to four-year schools, and there are very few situations in which I would call it reasonable. There's so much variability and opacity inherent in the application process that there is no "one-size-fits-all" game plan. Generally if a student can complete solid applications for more than one safety, more than one reach, and more than one "in-between" option, I don't see a good reason not to.
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Re: Undergraduate Applications: Making a "Short List"

Postby nasalhernia » Tue Sep 20, 2011 5:38 pm UTC

If you have the time and money, it helps to check the school out in person. You could love the school's academics, reputation, and professors, but the place just might not jive with you. Can you live with that? Depends on the student, but this is a step worth taking. Similarly, you might discover a school of repute for your chosen major that you don't know much about, and going to the campus makes you fall in love with college.

And get to know a teacher or mentor very well. A recommendation goes a long way to making your short list viable.

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Re: Undergraduate Applications: Making a "Short List"

Postby ofMars » Mon Oct 17, 2011 4:40 pm UTC

johnegood wrote:Truly stupid but that's how it works. You could of course break the cycle by going with early admission.


I work for a college access program, and early admission/early decision can be problematic, depending on how that school defines it. If you've gone through the decision process far in advance, i.e. decided on schools to apply to in Junior year, it can be useful. However, if a school's early admission policy is an early action policy, then you have to go to that school if you're accepted, limiting your options. Additionally, not everyone has the chance to apply early, and some schools suggest that early admissions fosters elitism, but that's a different story entirely


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