How to Narrow Down Your College List

Curious How to Narrow Down College List? Let Our Expert Tips Help You Make A Great College Decision

Written by Jason

It is simple: I envisioned Campus to Career Crossroads helping students have successful outcomes, dreamed up by the students themselves. Our mission at Campus to Career Crossroads is to develop a supportive and individualized partnership with you and your family to help you navigate the complex stages from high school and throughout your career. Let's work together!

Last updated Apr 10, 2024 | Published on Dec 24, 2022

You can only attend one school, so in the process of building a college list, you will have to whittle it down. 

But does “how to narrow down college list” really come easily? 

Unfortunately, it is not always that simple. Some students know right away whether a school is a good fit, while others may hem and haw between options. It is a good idea to start thinking about how to narrow down colleges as soon as you start visiting colleges. 

The national candidate reply date is May 1, which means that you must ultimately decide by this deadline for the vast majority of schools.

Let’s walk through the steps on how to narrow down your college list, starting with a large group of schools and ultimately landing on one. We will also include a number of questions you may want to ask yourself about each school before you decide.

Sort Your Existing List

How many schools did you put on your list? The number of colleges on the list will vary for most individuals. Some students put two schools on their list, others may put closer to twenty! Whether you put three or thirteen on the list, you will have to learn how to narrow down your college list.

Creating Checklist Can Keep Your College Planning Organized

Did you know that you can sort your list prior to applying? You can sort them into three areas: safety, target, and reach schools. Let’s take a look at the definition of each of these:

  • Safety schools: When your academic credentials exceed the average acceptance rate of a college, you may have applied to a safety school. In most cases, you will likely get admitted to your safety schools. It is important to make sure that you will enjoy attending your safety school just as much as target and reach schools.
  • Target schools: Think of “target” schools as a strong fit when applying to colleges. You have a good chance of getting into them but you might not get into them, either. Your GPA and test scores will ring true with the rest of the incoming freshman class.
  • Reach schools: A reach school is a college or university that you may have difficulty getting into due to the current acceptance rates at the school in comparison to your current transcripts. Do not forget that many colleges consider the entire package when they look at your application. Remember that you will likely not get accepted to certain colleges even if you have stellar grades. For example, Harvard’s class of 2026 had 61,221 applicants, admitted 1,984 students and admitted 36 from the waiting list.   

After you get accepted, you must continue to narrow your list. There is no one way to do this and remember: every student gets there somehow. Let’s take a look at some ways to get the job done.

Gather More Information to Narrow Down Your College List

What do you still need to know about the colleges and universities you are considering? If you are at the beginning of your search, you may need to learn a lot about the colleges on your list. You may need to gather information about a wide variety of factors, including:

  • Graduation rate
  • Cost
  • Academic fit
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Facilities and amenities
  • Career services and internship opportunities
  • Athletic programs
  • Class sizes
  • Safety and security on campus

If you have already gathered most of the information, what do you still need to know? What are you still missing? Are you still wondering about the trips available through a college’s tropical ecology class? Maybe you are still curious about the college’s career service opportunities.

Learn more so you can eliminate the colleges and universities that do not “fit.”

Put Together a List of Pros and Cons

It sounds too easy, but put together a pros and cons list anyway. It will help you narrow down a college list and get closer to your final decision. Write quickly (do not take a ton of time to do it) and jot down what you like and do not like about colleges. Your pros and cons list can give you a great indication of what you will like and do not like about colleges. When you “free associate” by writing things down quickly, you may learn more about your preferences than you even realized.

Write down whatever comes to mind — no matter how silly. If you did not like the food at the cafeteria, write it down (but keep in mind that it might have just been a bad day for the cooks in the kitchen). Here is an example of what it might look like to free associate:

College ABC:

Pros: Close to home, great soccer coaching staff, nice future teammates, my best friend goes to college here, and I had a great meeting with a business professor here. 

Cons: Cost is a little higher than College XYZ, the buildings all seem rundown, I am not sure it has my exact major. 

College XYZ:

Pros: Costs less than College ABC, my mom is an alumna so I will get extra scholarship money, it has a decent soccer team, and it has my exact major.

Cons: I was not as comfortable with the head soccer coach as I was with College ABC and it is further away from home. 

Some people wonder how they should make their “pros” and “cons” list, and to be honest, you can just scribble it out on a piece of paper. It does not even have to be in complete sentences! As shown above, it is important that you complete one pros and cons list for each college you’re seriously considering.

Making a List of Pros and Cons Will Help You Narrow Your College List Down

Visit Campuses Again to Narrow Down Your College List

Naturally, you will want to visit college campuses to get a glimpse of what a college experience might look like at that school. 

If you have already visited once, sometimes you need to visit again. If you still have unanswered questions or you visited the campus so quickly that you did not get a really good idea of what it had to offer, you may have to take another trip. Check out our fourteen tips to make the most of your second trip!

It can seem like an inconvenience to visit campuses if you have to fly cross-country to get there, but when it is a decision this big, you might just have to check it out again! Many colleges offer admitted student overnighters during the spring of the academic year, so consider jetting off to get all your questions answered. Do not leave until you do! 

Do other activities that you did not do the first time around, such as spending the night on campus, setting up meetings with professors, or spending time with the coaches again.

If it is simply not possible to visit a second time, call up the admissions official responsible for your state or ask to meet with a current student in person. They should give you everything you need to know. You may even want to explain that you are having trouble making your decision. In this case, the admissions counselor will likely help steer you toward the path of helping you find the right fit. 

Answer Some Questions

Ask some specific questions about each college that you have sorted into various lists. Let’s take a look at the list of questions you might want to consider. 

1. Do colleges offer my exact major?

Do colleges you are considering offer the exact major you want? For example, if a college offers a liberal arts degree but not digital marketing, you may want to consider crossing that college off your list.

Digital Marketing is an Emerging Major at Many Colleges

If you find yourself acting like a contortionist to try to get the major to fit what you want, remember that another college may have exactly what you were looking for. Do not try to make the major fit even if you love the college or university.

Also consider the reputation of the major at each school you are considering. What internship and job opportunities do the schools on your list offer? Furthermore, do the schools on your list offer other great majors? (Remember, many students change their major after the first year, and you will need to have excellent backup options.)

2. Can I afford the out-of-pocket costs?

What is the cost of attendance (COA) after scholarships and grants have been factored in? What is the final out-of-pocket cost? Consider how much you will have to take out in loans in order to attend one school over the other. Do not forget to ask about additional fees, which schools often do not disclose on the financial aid award. Getting into these details is important, as a recent report from the Government Accountability Office identified that an estimated ninety-one percent of colleges either do not include the net price in their award letters or understate the net price in their aid offers.

Do not forget that you will also have to multiply that out-of-pocket cost by (at least) four years, and remember that colleges and universities also increase tuition every year. Make sure you are factoring in these extra costs before you make a final decision. Consider the cost of traveling to and from college for holidays and school breaks. 

Also, consider how much your family can contribute and the savings they may contribute to your college education. Ultimately, try to stay within your budget. If loans are in the picture, consider how much you can afford to pay back in relation to your projected salary in your chosen career choice. My Smart Borrowing can help you decide how much you are willing to pay back after you graduate in conjunction with your desired career path.

Always Understand the Affordability of Each College When Narrowing Down Your College List

3. Can I “see” myself at a college?

Do you feel comfortable on a particular college campus? Does it feel like home? If you know in your heart and your gut that a college “feels right” to you, it might end up as the perfect match. 

But if you got a “funny vibe” the last time you were on a campus, it might send up red flags. For example, maybe a professor says something that rubbed you the wrong way or the admission staff acts snobby or spends too much time gossiping in each others’ offices.

Whatever the reason, you may be able to check a college off your list simply by listening to your instincts.

4. Where do I not want to go to college?

Flip the “where do you want to go to school?” question on its head. Sometimes, thinking about where you do want to go can seem too overwhelming, so if you think about where you do not want to go, it may offer a super easy solution.

For example, maybe you decide you do not want to go to school in the south — it is too hot. That would eliminate the schools on your list from Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia, for example. What other factors might cause you to cross a college off your list — too small, too large, too close to home, too far from home, too conservative, too liberal, etc. The point is, flipping the question can allow you to pare down your list in a heartbeat.

5. Do I fit in with the people on campus?

Do the people fit your preferences? Forget pretty buildings — people matter most. If you want to learn from the professors you have met, befriend the students you see and play sports, or make music with the people you interact with, the school might make perfect sense.

On the other hand, if you cannot quite see yourself making friends with the other students or don’t feel as if you’d quite “fit in” on the golf team, keep looking. 

In the meantime, should you heavily consider the campus itself, including the size? 

Yes, because that could also affect your college experience. If you live in a large city and move to a small, rural town for college, you might not enjoy living there. If you crave the outdoors but move to a college town in a big city, you might not enjoy your college experience. The campus setting might help you make your final decision, but remember to put people first — they ultimately make your college experience. 

6. Am I considering my final goal?

In everything that you have considered, have you considered your ultimate goals? You want to enter the workforce after a positive college experience. Sometimes, in all the challenges of sorting through majors, extracurricular activities and talking with coaches, it is easy to lose sight of the real reasons why you attend college. 

A College Education Can Help You Reach Your Future Goals

Get All Your Questions Answered

In many cases, you may feel uncomfortable making your final college decision for one simple reason: You do not have all your questions about that particular college answered! 

Sounds obvious, right? 

However, it is so important that you get every single question on your list answered because it could hold you back from making one of the most important decisions of your life. Do not let it!

Get all your questions answered

What questions do you still have about a particular college? Are you still wondering about how much tuition will go up each year? Do you have concerns about your ability to get a job if you attend this particular college? Do you wonder about your ability to do undergraduate research or how to get on the intramural rugby team? 

Whatever it is, reach out to an admission counselor at that particular college or university and ensure you ask those final follow-up questions. 

What to Do if You Still Cannot Decide

If you still cannot decide on a college, consider sitting down with someone you trust to help you sort out your final decision. It may be a coach, clergy member, parent, teacher — someone who knows you well! 

Sometimes they may even know you better than you know yourself, and that can help you more than you realize. For example, a teacher may point out that you enjoy biology but that you have also enjoyed English quite a bit, too, so they may encourage you to choose schools that have strong biology and English programs. Or a coach might point out a particular coaching style of a college coach that you might enjoy over another college coach’s style.

It is important to acknowledge that this is a difficult decision, but it is also important to realize that you are not alone in making it. Many individuals care about you and can help you — maybe even more than you realize! You do not have to make this decision alone.

Make the Right Final Decision

We know you have a lot to think about when creating your college list worksheet, building your college list and choosing colleges to apply to. However, you do not need to go it alone. After all this is one of the biggest decisions that high school seniors and will impact their future.

Campus to Career Crossroads can also help you make this huge, life-changing decision. That is why we are here and helped hundreds of clients make an exciting college decision to fit their goals. Let us guide you through the college decision process, step by step. 


How do you narrow down college decisions?

There is no one way to narrow down your college list. However, you may want to consider financial aid packages, paying for college tips, academic programs, extracurricular activities, housing options, and more. You can make a list of pros and cons, visit campuses again, and answer some questions in order to make sure you make the best decision for your future.

Let Campus to Career Crossroads' Expertise Help You Narrow Down Your College List

How do I categorize my college list?

Categorizing your college list can help you make a final decision about college. You can make a Google sheets list of categories that fit your personal needs and interests, such as “excellent biology program,” “high medical school placement rate,” and “women’s lacrosse team” — or whatever meets your specific needs. Try putting together a pros and cons list as well that you update as you work through the college search process.

How do you refine a college list?

Refining a college list means doing everything you personally need to do in order to get to the final decision. If that means visiting the college again, talking with current students, meeting with alumni in the career you prefer and more, the more likely you will successfully refine your college list to fit your needs.

How do I make a realistic college list?

You can sort your college list in three areas: safety, target, and reach schools. You can typically get into safety schools. You may not get a guaranteed acceptance from target schools but you have a good chance of getting into them because your credentials typically “match” the school’s requirements. Finally, a reach school is a college or university that you may have difficulty getting into due to the challenging requirements and acceptance rate at the school.

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