Tips on How to Put Together Your College List

Tips from a former college applicant (me!) who spent hours putting together list after list.

By Lara Mutluay January 18, 2021
stack of books on a table

Even as a current senior, my last year of high school was a particularly memorable one in terms of workload. Not only did I and my fellow classmates have to maintain a good GPA, juggle different extracurriculars, and try to enjoy our last year as high school students– we also had to make decisions which could impact our future.

Making a list

Deciding where we wanted to attend college was the biggest of these decisions, and the application process was particularly cumbersome for the majority of us. As a former college applicant who spent hours and hours assessing her chances of getting into a good college, here are my tips for making a list (or in my case, a spreadsheet) of the colleges I applied to:

Check World University Rankings

QS Rankings, Time Higher Education, and many other education-related publications provide annual university rankings with different parameters for which they evaluate schools around the globe.

As a starting point, you can see which colleges excel in the area you’re planning to major in – and if you are undecided, try to look for more well-rounded colleges by reading their school profiles on

Keep in mind that education is a huge industry and that these lists are funded by various sources – so do not diss the quality of international institutes on lists that are funded mainly by American sources. In general, try to look at as many lists as possible from different countries to get a more even perspective.

Check the SAT/ACT Scores and GPAs of Previous Admitted Classes

Websites like and provide concise and well-documented admissions data of previous applicants, as well as the reputation of each school. Since at this point, you’ll know what your test scores and GPA look like, you can assess your chances of getting into a specific school. Although, it is also worthwhile to mention that due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some schools are test optional and may require other application materials for evaluation. Keep in mind that their information may not necessarily apply to you if you believe you have an element that’ll put you above the other applicants (science prizes, sports medals, artistic talents, etc.), but it’ll give you a pretty good idea of the majority of the applicant pool you’ll be competing against.

I'm going to college

Check Financial Aid Status If You Need It

If you know that your family’s financial situation cannot cover the costs of your college education (either entirely or partially), you should check out the financial aid websites of the colleges you’re eyeing. 

If you are eligible, you should also check out the federal funding you might receive from FAFSA. For non-U.S. citizens, finding aid in public universities is much harder, but schools usually have a list of scholarships on their aid websites – don’t be afraid to check them out and contact them to ask if you might be eligible.

Check the Resources and Fit of Colleges

While the application process is mainly based on if or how you can get into a certain college, you must also remember that you’re going to be spending four years at that institution. If you have a specific plan for your major, you should check out the resources of the college you’re interested in and whether the school seems like a good fit for you.

Ask questions like, “Does this college allow undergrad research involvement?” or “Can non-student-athletes take advantage of the sports complexes?”. Also, do not forget to look into the environment of the college in college forums such as or Reddit to determine if you’ll enjoy being there. After all, how good can a college be if you will not feel comfortable attending it?

For International Students: Check the International Student Admissions Rate

While some colleges might have high admissions rates for their overall applicants, the same rates do not always apply to international applicants. Each college provides admissions data on their websites from previous years. It is a federal requirement for many colleges that this data has to be published. 

You can also use the SEVIS website to check where people from your country attend college and get a general idea of which schools are keener on international students. Also don’t forget to ask your high school advisor about the previous alumni from your school who got into the colleges you want to apply to. Some schools are aware of other nations’ high schools and assess applications accordingly.

taking notes

Divide Your Options Into Three Categories: Reach, Match, Safety

Now that you have assessed which colleges you want to attend, it’s time to be realistic. You know your test scores (if you’ve taken them) and probably have a general idea of where you stand in your class. With the help of your advisor in your school and your parents or guardians, decide how many colleges you’re going to apply to and divide them into three categories: reach, match, and safety. Keep in mind that if family finances are an issue, you can ask for a fee waiver right on the application. The cost of applying should not keep you from doing so.

Reach: Apply to a couple schools that you’d love to get into even though they are above your qualifications. Many schools use holistic review, which means that admissions counselors are looking at more than just your test scores and GPA. Don’t underestimate yourself – choose one or two “reaches.” (Miracles do happen sometimes!)

Match: Your list should mainly consist of schools you believe you are qualified enough to get into on paper, which will be your “matches.”

Safety: Do not forget to include a couple of “safety” institutions whose applicants seem to be below your qualifications or which are known for particularly high admissions rates in case this season’s admissions pool is particularly competitive and you are rejected or waitlisted from your matches. Safety institutions are also great to include since you may get more financial aid from them if you are an academic standout and they have merit-based financial aid funding.

This period of time might be difficult and your options may seem both endless and very limited at times, but rest assured that it will all be settled sooner than you think. So get to researching and take the necessary steps that’ll lead you to the end of the college application process. You’ll be at your new school before you know it!

Lara Mutluay
Lara Mutluay

Lara Mutluay is a senior majoring in Cellular, Molecular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB). In addition to her studies, she conducts research at Freddolino Lab in Biological Chemistry Department at the U-M Medical School. Lara is an international student from Turkey and is very passionate about climate change and how it especially affects marine ecosystems. She is currently creating her own travel blog on Instagram (@filterless.travels) where she aims to portray overly edited touristic places as they really are. In her free time, she can be found figure skating, scuba diving, reading or binge watching whatever new obsession of hers is on Netflix.