How to Build Your College List? - ASK ME ANYTHING!

With the deadlines for ED/EA coming up shortly, we have asked a few trusted community members to jointly do this AMA to answer questions and share their tips to help you build your college list.

@thumper1 is a parent of two kids who did very different college searches: one in the performing arts and one in the sciences.

@happymomof1’s daughter went to community college on a transfer track and then transferred to an in-state public university. She had a great experience at both places and launched successfully into her professional career.

Let us know your questions below!

Are you a parent who accumulated expertise with certain schools or topics (e.g. financial aid, FAFSA, essay writing, test prep, etc.)? Do you have a unique story you want to share to help and inspire other parents? If so and want to host an AMA send me a private message and we’ll connect on next steps.

@Thumber: How many colleges did your science son/daughter apply to and how many of them were early applications? Thanks!


Not sure you or anyone for that matter can answer this question, but here it is. D21 is planning on applying ED to her top choice (they do not have EA) do you think being accepted to their Diversity FlyIn (Virtual during 2020-COVID) will give a student an slight edge as in years past or do you think due to virtual it really won’t matter?

She was accepted into both of JHU sessions. HOME +Impact.

Do you have any advice for those second guessing their college list? Also, what advice do you have for students to find matches if they are “average excellent- great grades and test scores, etc. but not in the tippy top range, if that makes sense?

Thank you both for doing this!


My Stem kid applied initially to only 3 colleges. She later added a reach school and we asked her to add a parent choice.

She did early action where it was available (2) and rolling admissions (1). The two later applications were regular decision.

We did a lot of college vetting before the applications were sent. This kid had several criteria for the college search, and all schools she applied to had to meet Them all.

She wanted:

  1. Strong sciences
  2. Ability to play in the student orchestra and take lessons but not as a music major or minor.
  3. “Pleasing” weather ( snow)

She previewed online a bunch of colleges. Many were eliminated because of the music criteria.

We were also in the position to be able to visit 14 or 15 colleges with her (combined with family vacations).

At the end, the first three she applied to were her top choices and she did matriculate and graduate from one of those schools.

I strongly suggest that students and families do the best they can to vet schools before applications are sent. I realize that some students do need to cast a broader net than our kid did for reasons like seeking out merit awards.

But college applications take time to complete. And too many applications can really make this problematic for some students.

I also strongly suggest an early action or rolling admission school that the student likes. That early first acceptance is a very sweet one.

Neither of our kids applied early decision.

@Livvyxoxo -

My advice is to build the list from the bottom up. That means that there should be a truly safe institution (admission guaranteed for stats, clearly affordable, offers the major) that the student would be happy at if all else goes wrong. Send the application to that place first. Get the acceptance early so the student is in line for any goodies such as Honors Program or extra merit scholarship money or early housing selection or early course selection, etc. Everything else will be gravy.

For your average excellent student, there are lots of academic and social matches out there, so it is easy for the student’s list to grow and change. What parameters are important for you as a parent, and what are important for the student? How reasonable is the current group of matches? What kinds of places does the student want to add now? Is the student just overwhelmed and wondering if they’d rather do a gap year?

I will add this general response about choosing colleges.

  1. We discussed finances with our kids so they knew up front what limits we had.
  2. We discussed any parent restrictions. We had needed to be located either within an hour of a close friend or relative, or within a 3 hour drive from our house. Different families have different things they feel are important.
  3. We looked at a LOT of common data sets to see where our kids might realistically get accepted (this didn’t apply so well to the performer who had to audition).
  4. We agreed that we had to all agree on the application choices. This is an individual family decision we made. Since we agreed on the application choices, when acceptances came the kids chose the college to attend.
  5. We insisted that our kids have some criteria for choosing colleges. They made the list, and we just looked at it with them. You can see one kid’s criteria above. The other kid wanted an urban setting, access to good performing arts, and a terrific teacher on his instrument. This really helped narrow down the field.
  6. We answered questions when asked, but didn’t really need to do more. Our kids were both invested in the process which was good.
  7. Parents planned the college visit trips. But kids had to reach out to specific departments or faculty and they needed to schedule the tours (on the dates we gave them)....and accepted student visits too.
  8. Both kids had a teacher/mentor to talk to. The performer had his music teachers and the stem kid had her science and math teachers.
  9. We asked both kids to get their applications done early early in their senior year. Both got them all done by the end of October except for a late addition each had. Both kids said later that this made their senior year so much nicer!
  10. I proofread a lot. But I changed no content on any essay or application question.
  11. Visits were important for our kids because both were going to college OOS. We wanted them to actually see where these schools were and what they were like.

Once they made their application choices, we were all relieved!


I’m not familiar with the program you mentioned at JHU. Some of these summer programs do give preference in acceptance and some don’t matter one bit.

I would think a fly in would be an advantage because colleges pay for those!

If this is her top choice and is affordable, go for it and see. Just be sure to have other applications either submitted or ready to go just in case.

Second guessing their application list @Livvyxoxo

Well…we told both kids…nothing is forever. We will help you craft the best application list we can. If you choose a college and hate it, you can transfer elsewhere. It helped that both my husband and I didn’t graduate from the colleges we started in as freshmen!

I think matches should be schools that the student likes for whatever reasons, and where there is a strong likelihood of acceptance. This is where the Common Data Set can help.

All of your answers are so helpful and you brought up so many good points. I have carefully read every reply and I’m taking notes. Thank you so much for all of the time and care all of you put in your answers. ??

I agree with @happymomof1 that building the list from the safety (sure thing for admission, affordable, and student likes it) up is the way to go. It’s very easy to pick reach schools, in my opinion. I suggest at least two safety schools, because it’s nice to have a choice if it comes to that.

I suggest that students figure out their criteria for college…the things they want their college to have…and go from there. This needs to be compatible with family affordability.

Let me describe my older child, the performing arts major. He wanted a school in an urban area so he would have access to performances to see as well as possibly be part of. He wanted good public transportation so he could get to these things. He wanted a very strong teacher on his instrument (this is where networking with his music folks came in). He wanted very strong student ensembles plus a variety of them

Note…he didn’t mention conservatories, or rankings of schools. He made a list of characteristics of the school he wanted.

His final school application list included both conservatories and universities with strong conservatory like music programs within the university. Some were smaller schools, and some larger. He applied to only 7 schools. Again, he vetted the list before the applications were sent. But in addition, he had to consider the added audition at each place to which he applied. Seven was manageable. I’m not sure more would have been.

His variety of colleges was a good one and we agreed with it. Top criteria ended up being the private instrument teacher, as it should be for musicians. (Adding, there is a music majors forum here where you can get tons of information about music majors).

I think having a variety of application places is important. Students can really change between October when the start to submit applications, and May when they have to actually choose a college to attend from their accepted list.

Even for this musician, he had three schools with early auditions, and he had those acceptances before the middle of December. He knew he was going somewhere!

@happymomof1 @thumper1 Thank you very much for your thoughtful replies. As a stressed out senior, this was very reassuring. ?

S is going with a big list due to all of the crazy uncertainty and because there is not a slam dunk school that is within driving distance of home and checking all of his boxes. He is STEM but wants leans to a medium private school with small classes.

S is applying to a number of schools EA. If he is admitted EA, what can we expect from those schools before May 1? (We are full pay, but would like to compare merit packages (if any), and any honors colleges offers at public safeties or matches.) Do schools require deposits before you find out what the deals are? Thanks!

PS. I do have some list anxiety. Do you think you would have encouraged a longer list if your children were applying this year?

Some EA schools have a priority filing deadline for financial aid…and some of those schools do provide their award packages on the earlier side for EA accepted students.

EA is not binding so some schools just send their financial aid awards (need based and/or merit) when they send the regular decision awards.

Our kids experienced both.

DDs three top choices all sent awards out earlier. The rolling admission school was a merit aid surprise for her and came in very early March. The two EA schools sent awards in January or February.

The performer kid had two very early auditions, and received his acceptances and performance merit awards with his acceptances before mid December.

So, YMMV on this depending on the college.

DD was asked to put an enrollment deposit down, but she called and politely explained that she wasn’t able to make a firm commitment until the end of April. The school was fine with that. You should not be required to place an enrollment deposit unless this is an Early Decision acceptance…binding.

DO NOT put an enrollment deposit down anywhere until you have all the details.

We did put down refundable housing deposits for both kids.

@NateandAllisMom would my kids have applied to more schools this year? Probably not.

As I said, they really vetted their colleges well before the applications were sent. Both felt that their acceptance chances were very good everywhere they applied…except for the reach DD added and she was not accepted.

The performer had to deal with auditions…so his “chances” were hard to predict because his acceptance related to the strength of the auditions of others on his instrument.

Our kids were very happy with all of the schools to which they applied. They would have been fine attending any of them. That’s a nice thing to aim for, in my opinion.

I should add, my science kid went to college with 5000 undergrads…sounds similar to your kid’s desire. But her second choice was a HUGE OOS flagship university where she got the surprise merit scholarship.

Our performer didn’t get accepted academically to one college, and it was weird. Both his GPA and SAT scores were way way higher than the mean…closer to the top 25% mark. So…there can be surprises. But it didn’t matter to the kid because he had six other acceptances at the end of the process (3 had been received well before that rejection came).

Am I making sense?

Realistic thinking helped my kids. Neither was applying to top 20 elite schools. They knew those were unrealistic in terms of acceptance, and found plenty of schools with the characteristics they wanted.

@thumper1 thank you so much for your feedback!

The list is fairly balanced (per a program we are using) but bloated, especially with big publics (due to major) and targets. A few of the schools on his list we saw before Covid luckily and S would be ok with those but he doesn’t have a strong opinion about even the ones we toured.

His true safeties are mainly regional OOS publics that we haven’t yet seen in person. Unfortunately, there isn’t a solid safety that we are all excited about, and the one OOS we toured is not doing a good job at all managing Covid unfortunately.

There are a couple of targets and reaches that are distant and we are not sure we will be able to travel to those in 2021 but will try over Spring Break if he’s admitted.

S will be applying test optional to a popular major, so the thinking is that we will cast the net wide and figure it out in the spring when we have more information.

@happymomof1 @thumper1 Thank you very much for your replies. I do like the idea of starting from the bottom with safety school. Unfortunately we are struggling to find that option (D is applying direct entry nursing in SoCal) Any suggestions?

Direct admit nursing and safety school can be a tough combo to find, for many students community college ADN programs are their safeties.

Look at your local CSUs (might not be a safety though). In SoCal also look at Point Loma Nazarene, Mount St Mary’s, Biola, Loma Linda.

Here is a database of accredited nursing programs:

I agree with @Mwfan1921 . There are some prospective majors where a “safety school” or sure thing is more difficult to find. I mentioned my performing arts kid. That kid had no real “safety” schools because his admission on his instrument was based on the strength of his audition, and also compared to the others doing auditions on his instrument. For him, he had decided that if he did not get accepted to any of the 7 programs where he auditioned, he would rethink his entire college plan.

The allied health professions are challenging for admissions anyway. Those wishing to enter these professions (Nursing is one, but there is OT, PT, Speech/Language…I’d add PA to this) need to have a plan B to attain their goal. Not all will get accepted to direct entry programs, and that doesn’t mean they aren’t terrific students.

So maybe in your case, the “safety” will be a program that is not direct entry. I agree that looking at your instate options would be beneficial. Many states have these programs in hopes they will be able to fill nursing jobs in their state from the grads.

I’m including two links here. The first is for the nursing major forum here on CC. You will find some info there.

This second link is related to careers in medicine, and there are not a lot of nursing questions but there are some.

And lastly, if any programs of interest have early action (not early decision) or rolling admissions…get those done very soon after the applications open. If your prospective nurse gets an earlier acceptance, the edge will be off!