Creating a Balanced College List

When building a balanced college list, consider academics, the social scene, admissibility, and affordability.
A college campus

For high school seniors, one of the most important tasks is creating a list of colleges to which to apply. This list can change over time, but it is a good idea to start with a working list of colleges that will be a good fit. When most people use the term 'good fit' they generally mean finding a college that will be a good match both academically and socially. At MEFA, we tell families that since students don't know exactly where they will be admitted, it is advisable to look at two additional factors when creating the list – admissibility and affordability. The goal is to apply to a number of schools so that students will have options to consider in the spring when college acceptances begin to arrive. Read below for our guidance to high school seniors on building the college list:


For most students, college is the next step toward a future career and beyond. For some students who have a good idea about a future career, this means finding a college that has a program of study that allows achievement toward that specific goal. Colleges can be searched by program of study and/or relevant majors. Students who are not quite as sure about a future career can find colleges that have a program of study that will allow them to take courses in subjects that interest them most, allowing them to explore many different academic areas.

Social Scene

Finding a college that is a good fit socially refers to the environment. Students can consider the following questions:

  • Are you more comfortable at a small college or would you prefer a large university?
  • Would you like to go to school in a city or in a rural area?
  • Do you have interests that you would like to continue in college such as sports, or music, or journalism?

Students should find a campus that meets these preferences. Reading about colleges online is a great start, but to really get the feel of an institution, a campus visit is key. While visiting all colleges on the list may not be an option, students can get a sense of the different college environments by visiting various kinds of  colleges close to home. For example, students interested in a large public university out of state can visit the flagship public in-state college. Another way for students to assess social fit is to talk with students from their community that attend the colleges on their list. Current students will give an honest opinion of their college experience.


The more selective the college, the more difficult it is for a student to predict if he or she will be admitted. Selectivity is measured by the percentage of students who are accepted. The lower the percentage, the more selective the school. The most highly selective schools generally admit less than a third of applicants. Students should apply to colleges with varying admissions criteria, but the majority should be colleges where they have a good chance of being admitted. Students can determine this by knowing their strengths, grades, scores, and extracurricular activities and how they fit into the profile of a specific college. Colleges usually post the profile of their latest incoming class right on their websites. Guidance counselors and college planning tools such as MEFA Pathway can also provide helpful information about admissibility at different colleges.


It's very important to consider the affordability of a college. This doesn't mean that students shouldn't apply to a certain college because of its cost, but rather that they need to make sure that they have a mix of colleges on their list, most of which they know their family can afford. Colleges have Net Price Calculators on their websites, which can provide some sense of what a particular family may end up paying to attend the school and what type of financial aid package the student may receive. It's important to bear in mind that some colleges award financial aid based on financial need (which considers what a family can afford) but also on merit (which takes into account a student's skills and strengths). The most academically qualified students applying to the college in a given year could receive some merit-based aid. Our College Financing seminars and webinars offer more information about affordability and paying for college.

There's a lot to consider when building the college list. Though it's okay to have a few long shots, students should ensure that most of the schools on the list are ones where they will be admitted and that their family can afford. And, most importantly, students should be excited about every single school on the list.