"Harvard is my top choice, but I have decided I'm willing to settle for U.Penn."
AKA, how to create a college application list that doesn't suck.

So, you've begun the college application process! Congratulations!

You're thrilled with your grades, proud of your SAT/ACT score, satisfied with your complement of extracurriculars. And now, you're hunting for a school that offers a good complement to your skills and temperament. Of course, your parents are 100 percent behind you -- they don't care about the status symbol of a brand-name on their bumper sticker. Why, just the other day Mom said, "Wherever you think you're going to thrive, honey, we're behind you all the way. Even if it's community college." 

After extensive research, carefully comparing schools, weighing the professors and extracurriculars they offer, refusing to get distracted by celebrity alumni or vague rumors of 'networks', you are ready -- not to choose, but to apply. You know, of course, that the final choice will come further down the line, but you're confident that you will have good options to choose from, since you have applied to a wide range of programs. Now, everything is taken care of. There's nothing to do but fill out the applications and wait, calmly and patiently, for your answers.

Sounds great, doesn't it?  The above is a perfectly accurate description of ZERO PEOPLE'S COLLEGE APPLICATION PROCESS. In fact, here's what you're going through right now --

* You're behind on everything. Not just on your applications themselves. Everything. You haven't showered in a week. You're eating takeout and you're not even sure what week it's from.
* Every campus tour is turning into a pitched battle. This one has a bad location. That one just didn't seem very accommodating. The other one doesn't have good 'career options'.
* People you haven't spoken to in years are coming out of the woodwork to jam their oars into the process. "You know, you should really think about Cornell. It's so easy to get in there. What do you mean it's changed since I applied 30 years ago?"
* You can't seem to get a handle on the basic facts and differences between schools. How are you supposed to know what's marketing and what's real?

Welcome to your personal Hell -- college applications.

On this site, we have covered many aspects of the college application process in detail, but one thing we haven't written much about is creating a school list. This is your master list of places you will apply, and everybody needs one (even you!).

The reason we haven't written much about it is that it is (or should be) a very personal, non-cookie-cutter process. It is impossible to come up with a great school list without carefully analyzing who you're creating it for. That said, there are a few rules of thumb we can share to help you avoid the nightmare scenario -- not getting in anywhere you actually want to go.

RULE ONE: Spend 4x as much time researching and applying to safeties as reaches, and apply to at least three THAT YOU WOULD ACTUALLY WANT TO ATTEND.  People hate this rule. Nobody likes thinking about their third, fifth or seventh choice school. But a great safety list = a great school list. And the fact is, everybody already knows about your reaches, including you. They're the same as everybody else's reaches. But no two applicants' safety lists are identical, because different 'safety' schools are strong in different areas. Safety schools force you to sort out your priorities. Posit that you can't have everything -- what's the one thing you can't live without?  Location, school size, academic rigor?

RULE TWO: Apply to AT LEAST 10 schools. You only go through this process once, and the entire point is to give yourself options. Research until you come up with at least ten schools that excite you.

RULE THREE: Understand what differentiates the schools on your list from one another. No two schools have the same strengths or weaknesses. If you follow the above instructions, you're going to have options. So plan out how you would spend four years at each school you're considering. How would you fulfill your academic needs? What social opportunities on campus look promising?

RULE FOUR: Avoid early decision unless you're SURE that's the school you want. There are strategic advantages to ED at most schools -- but that is completely useless unless you're completely certain that your ED school is the one you want to attend, AND that money is no object, since you're sacrificing a shot at scholarships at other schools.

RULE FIVE: Apply early action everywhere you can, and always apply in the first week of a rolling deadline. If your target school has a rolling application, don't wait -- apply as soon as it opens. You'll get a leg up on the competition, and it doesn't cost you a cent, unlike ED. Early action, which is not binding, offers the same advantages.

RULE SIX: No procrastination. Alongside magical thinking, procrastination is the biggest college candidacy killer. The moment you know what work you need to do, create a calendar and start getting it done. No excuses. Nothing is higher priority right now for you than this process. Your future depends on it.

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Obviously, this list just barely scratches the surface, and feel free to contact us if you have more questions. But hopefully this can get you started on your path to the ideal college fit!