How to Conquer “The List”: Keeping Your Options Open and Your Sanity Intact

How many colleges should I apply to? Should I reach beyond my comfort zone? Should I include “safeties”? What IS a “safety” for me?

If this sounds like the one-sided conversation happening in your head right now, then take a deep breath, because I have some good news for you.

There is no perfect number of college applications for a high school senior to complete, no ideal ratio of reaches to safeties to maximize your chances of getting into your perfect school. Because—-guess what—-there is no perfect school!

We all want to find our best fit, but at the end of the day, this doesn’t come down to a single college that will make or break your future. Pretty much any campus you end up on will have the tools and resources for you to realize your dreams and to make the most of your college experience.

Don’t fall into the trap of seeing the college selection process as Judgment Day for all the foibles of high school, when that late English paper and those lab reports you fudged junior year will finally come to haunt you. It’s a compatibility test to see what flavor of amazing opportunities is most likely to be your best fit.

A little more relaxed? Good. Now we can get to business.

Make Your List, Don’t Let Your List Make You

College admissions is more like online dating than a simple essay assignment. You don’t have a standard rubric to know how you’ll be graded. Each college is looking for something different in its applicants based on what it has to offer. It’s up to you to do the research on your potential matches to find your ideal partner for the next four years.

Start with your school’s college advisor if you have one—-this will be your best “matchmaking” resource. By entering a little information on the kind of environment and resources you think you want, you can use Collegeboard’s College Search tool to begin a rough list. Don’t worry about it being too big or too small, these are just Tinder matches. You will have plenty of time to refine it based on a few general criteria.

Keep in mind that this is the one part of the college admissions process over which you have total control—-take advantage of that. It’s your turn to be picky. Look for the same things you would in a long-term relationship.

Sex Appeal. A high national ranking and a pretty campus are the college equivalent of having popularity and a nice butt, and they’re probably the first things to make an impression on you. They’re important, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not going to be the most important. If you find a college that has the exact program that you’re looking for or the research opportunities you’ve always dreamed of, whether or not it’s a Top 10 university and the library has a Starbucks is trivial. So take note of these first impressions and file them away for later, so you can consider them after you know exactly what each college has to offer underneath the makeup.

Personality. It’s important to budget your college search time carefully, and this honestly needs to receive the majority of your attention. Set aside quality time to discover the available majors, political/social climate, and types of extracurriculars available. This will likely take a little soul searching on your part as well. Consider what you want carefully and try to keep your list diverse—-don’t just apply to eight identical universities, leave yourself some options so when it comes to making a commitment you don’t feel trapped in the decisions you made six months earlier. Your preferences could change slightly in that time, so leave yourself a little wiggle-room for that. Think about what sizes you would be most comfortable with, whether or not you want a liberal arts education, and what programs you want access to, academic or otherwise. Remember, this is all about finding your best fit, so make sure your colleges’ personalities mesh well with your own.

Family. You aren’t just “marrying” your college, you’re marrying your new city too. You might be moving to a whole new state even, and you need to evaluate how much culture shock you’re willing to sign up for. Do you want a quaint little college town in the mountains? Or are you more of the coastal, big-city type? Do you need a city with plenty to do off-campus, be it concerts, arts exhibitions, or a thriving nightlife, or will you be content with university-sponsored activities and events? This is also an important time to consider health and safety. Is the weather drastically different? Is the crime rate higher than what you’re used to in your hometown? Does the campus itself seem secure? Do a little research off of the college’s actual websites here—-there are a number of third-party websites, like US News & World Report, with helpful statistics on crime and safety for comparison of different campuses. This is your home for the next four years, and it is very important to feel safe and comfortable enough to take full advantage of your college experience.

Quirks. Every campus has them. You should be intimately acquainted enough with your prospective colleges to have picked up on a few things, some really cool, some kind of weird, totally unique to each. Maybe one school has the best performance program for violin. Maybe another has an unusually strong fencing team. Maybe one is the country’s leading alzheimer’s research institution. On the other hand, maybe your favorite college isn’t as diverse as you had hoped. Maybe they aren’t representative of your sexual orientation or religion. These are often the types of things you can only tell by visiting a school yourself, so make sure to allot plenty of time, and resources, especially if you’re looking at options a good distance away, for making campus visits and going on tours. Much of this can happen after applications are submitted, but it’s a good idea to get as much of it as you can done early, if it’s economically feasible, in order to avoid writing applications for schools that you realize later you wouldn’t be comfortable attending. Oftentimes the final college choice comes down to the feeling you get on campus, not hard numbers.

Keep Your Balance

Starting to feel overwhelmed again? Don’t. Finalizing your list is an arduous process, but if you take it gradually, it can be very rewarding. Start as early as you can; many people by begin cobbling a rough list together in the summer before senior year and refining it over the first few months of school with the help of an advisor or teacher. Even if you start late or fall behind, it is so, so, so important NOT to let The List take over your life. If you have to miss one lacrosse practice or get a B on a test because you were writing an application essay or making a college visit, that’s understandable, but if you find yourself compromising your mental health for the sake of The List, it’s time to stop and take a step back to re-evaluate your priorities.

Academics. Obviously, keeping up your academic standards is essential to successfully completing the college admissions process. Not only do you need good grades, and a consistent or improving record of solid performance, but you will also be much more effective as a college freshman if you keep up your study habits through senior year. Senioritis is easy to catch, but it will make getting into and staying in the college you want a lot harder.

Extracurriculars. If you need to slim down your schedule, by all means cut out a few clubs or hobbies. Just don’t make the college search your one and only extracurricular. You should do your best to maintain a diversity of non-academic activities, for both the strength of your applications and your own happiness. You don’t want to isolate yourself or lose the friends you’ve made outside of class, and those social interactions really do have a positive effect on your mental state, which will make it easier for you to handle your academic and application workloads.

Athletics. Cardio exercise, a component of most high school sports, actually releases endorphins in your brain, chemicals that give you that “runner’s high” of a buzz and the morale to finish that open-prompt essay. It also releases norepinephrine, a hormone involved in stress-management. So no matter how crazy and stressful your day feels, try to get at least thirty minutes of cardio in a day—-the extra time will be more than worth the physical and mental benefits to your health.

Relaxation. Finally, make sure you still treat yourself regularly. Go to the park or the beach for some fresh air, meditate, do yoga, or go out with friends at least once a week. Plan these things out ahead of time to give yourself something to look forward to when you feel overworked. Balancing your time and being informed but picky will make The List seem less like the end of the world as you know it and more like the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it really is to get exactly what you want out of the next four years of your life.

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the author

Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Kate is currently adjusting to cooler climes as a first year at the University of Virginia. A prospective pre-med student, she enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics and contributes to her school newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, as a Health & Science writer. She mentors youth as a tennis coach and spends her free time on the piano, playing anything from Rachmaninov to the theme from The Chronicles of Narnia. An aspiring hiker, she hopes to one day complete a trek on every continent.

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