Keeping Your College List Targeted and Deliberate

August 16, 2022
College Admissions
College Applications

In the initial stages of formulating a college list, too many students invariably turn to the latest U.S. News & World Report Best College rankings as their primary tool in formulating their college lists. This is a mistake. While these rankings give one a sense of the general rankings landscape of colleges and universities, they are based on a range of factors that do not take into account each student’s unique circumstances.

As soon as you start preparing your college list, to make it truly individualized and effective, be sure to identify and note the specific, well-defined features that align directly with your future aspirations. This will require careful thought, research, and practical planning that extends well beyond rankings. The focus should be on what you truly want from your college experience. Here are some of the most important considerations for ensuring this process remains targeted and deliberate –and less cumbersome.


Before making a college list, sit down and consider what your non-negotiables are. In other words, what aspects of a school are most important to you? If your top priority is to go to a school with D-1 athletics, then there is no need to spend time researching small liberal arts colleges. If you want your college experience to feel more personal and community-oriented, you will want to look at smaller colleges and think twice about bigger ones. Students who identify these types of essential features and apply them early in their college search have more time to focus on colleges that have greater potential of being a strong match.

Geographic Location

Surprisingly, students often forget how important location is when initially considering colleges. While excellent schools exist in every part of the country, differences in culture, lifestyle, climate, and distance from home are all meaningful factors in assessing the specific appeal of a particular college or university. Students often fail to fully grasp the influence these aspects can have on their college experience until they have wasted considerable time surveying schools across the country that were never going to be a part of their final list.

Remember that where you go to college is likely where you will be living for four years. In fact, it may even be where you choose to live after college, a common occurrence. Life in the Midwest differs greatly from that on the West Coast, as it does in other areas of the country. As such, geography should be weighed carefully within your wider list of priorities. And while some students ultimately decide geographical considerations are not essential in charting their path, students who factor in location from the onset will save time and energy, while also engaging more deliberately in the formation of a targeted college list.

Majors and Programs

It’s estimated that up to half of students heading to college are undecided about their major. However, if you do know in which area you intend to major, national rankings that evaluate and compare specific programs can be very effective aids in helping you target the right schools. If you are certain, for instance, that you want to study artificial intelligence at a top engineering school, you can research the rankings of top artificial intelligence programs around the country or within your geographical areas of interest. Importantly, these measure the quality of individual programs and the success of their graduates apart from the general ranking of the college or university.

Understanding how well-positioned a school’s degree program is relative to competing programs and its reputation with respect to success beyond the classroom will encourage targeted, more meaningful comparisons between universities. So study these rankings carefully, craft a list of potentially appealing schools, and explore each program’s website to learn about its structure as well as the kind of academic and career support it offers.


In the process of researching degree programs, you can also learn about a school’s faculty. In addition to frequently publishing academic research, many professors stay connected via their social media accounts, sometimes even sharing lectures on platforms such as YouTube. If you want to study anthropology, for example, find a school’s anthropology professors on the department website. This will enable you to explore their research and any available online lectures to see if your academic interests align with either the classes they teach or the research with which they are involved. Professors play an important role in the academic experience at any college, so it’s important to learn as much as possible about their backgrounds.

Internships/Career Services/Co-op Programs

Future work and career opportunities should be carefully factored into the shaping of your final college list. The support offered by career services varies widely depending on the school. While some colleges maintain robust networks of support to ensure students are provided ample opportunities to gain practical work experience, others are far less involved. Some notable schools, such as Northeastern University in Boston and Drexel University in Philadelphia, even offer co-op programs that place students directly into the workplace as an adjunct to their academic programs. This means, however, that most students finish in five years rather than in four. The type and level of career support schools provide can have a major impact on student success beyond graduation, so you should identify schools that offer the kind of support you believe will help you meet your future goals.

Study Abroad

The opportunity to immerse oneself in a foreign culture through a study abroad program is a major driving force for many students while formulating college lists. What is often not fully understood, however, is that all study abroad programs are not created equally. Some colleges invest heavily in global university partnerships and are known for offering students hands-on support, both before and during their time abroad. While other schools offer very limited opportunities to study in foreign countries.

To remain targeted and deliberate as you consider study abroad programs, you can first research the “Best Colleges for Study Abroad” rankings, followed by more direct research on each school’s website. Another great source of information is the students themselves. Many are excited to share their experiences studying abroad online. So consider using a search engine and social media to find related published testimonials, blogs and videos. Cross- referencing rankings and information gathered from university websites with real-world, personal insights will aid enormously in making your final assessments.

The Importance of Having a Targeted and Deliberate College List

According to a March 2022 Common App report, total applications to colleges rose 21.3% over the previous two years, continuing a trend that has persisted for nearly a decade. This means more competition for spots at schools, especially the most prestigious. Therefore, it is imperative to create a targeted and deliberate college list from the very beginning. This will allow you to remain organized and focused on what matters most to you, while also minimizing much of the stress inherent in this extremely important process.

At AtomicMind, we harness our 40-plus years of combined experience to help students design a college list that not only aligns perfectly with their priorities and goals but also ensures their applications are as strong as they can be.