Crafting a College List: Justin's Story

Crafting a College List: Justin’s Story

This is Part 1 of the series “Crafting College Lists.”

Juniors and seniors can really struggle crafting their college lists. When faced with the question of “where should I apply?” or “where should I visit?” they’ll often just give a blank stare. A lot of the time, the first place students want to turn to are the schools they’ve heard of. These tend to be Ivy League schools and the state flagship.

The Ivy League and the state flagship are great schools that are fantastic for some students. But there are over 4,000 colleges in the US alone, each with something unique to offer. By limiting your college list to only the 8 or 10 really famous schools your mom’s doctor friends went to, you are doing yourself a real disservice.

But even with that information, students frequently don’t know where to go from there. After all, there are over 4,000 colleges in the US, most of which you haven’t heard of. How do you even begin to find out which college is the right fit for you?

We’re going to take one real student, Justin, as one example of how to begin to approach the college process.

Background on Justin

Justin is currently a high school junior from Los Angeles, California. He’s passionate about math, philosophy, and art, but hates history and English quite a bit. His primary extracurricular activity is soccer. He’s played varsity and has been a starter for all of high school. In addition, Justin really enjoys volunteering. He loved working at a camp for autistic kids for the past few summers and has also devoted a lot of time to working for a suicide hotline at the local hospital.

Big Questions

So with that background information on Justin’s interests and disinterests, I then went on to ask him the big questions.

Financial concerns? Justin’s parents have the funds to pay for a private undergraduate education for him. Financial aid and scholarships are not a necessity. 

Big or small? Justin definitely wants a small school with probably less than 5,000 people. He told me how important tightly knit communities are to him and that he feels most comfortable in a very supportive environment.

Possible major? He’s got his eye on a math major but still is really interested in philosophy and studio art. Maybe even psychology.

Social scene? While Justin has no interest in joining a Greek organization, he’s okay with a few frats or sororities so long as they don’t have a prominent presence on campus. He’d like to make sure students on campus do have fun, but he’d rather not attend a “party school” where the bulk of students care more about alcohol than academics.

Geography? Justin’s okay with going to college a plane ride from home. However, he’d prefer not to be in a big city again, because he wants a close, tightly knit community.

Political leanings? He’d rather not attend a super conservative school. And while Justin isn’t looking for a school with a religious affiliation, if it has one, that’s not a dealbreaker.

Curriculum? Justin knows for sure he does not want a school with a core curriculum. He has a few passions he’d like to pursue in depth and several subjects he’d prefer not to touch again. He’d like a school that will give him the freedom and flexibility to hone in on his interests.

Any other must-haves? Dealbreakers? Justin wants to play soccer in college. So every college on his list needs to have a soccer team he would be able to play on.

College Criteria

From the information presented above, it’s clear that Justin wants to attend a small school (which will likely end up being a liberal arts school) that has Division III athletics, strong math programs, and limited course requirements. So where to go from there?

Numeric Information

So we’ve all heard about the importance of finding safety schools, match schools, and reach schools. I want to make sure Justin spends the bulk of his search finding schools that are a good fit for him that he has a good chance of getting into. It’s a waste of time to devote most of your search falling in love with colleges that are unrealistic and then ending up somewhere where you’re unhappy. Sure it’s okay to have a few of those really selective schools on your list, but make sure you spend time finding colleges you can realistically and happily attend.

What constitutes a safety, a reach, and a match differs for every student. This is where Justin’s transcript and test scores will really come into play.

GPA: 3.2

Justin had a difficult adjustment from middle to high school. His middle school is very progressive but his new high school is far more traditional. As a result, Justin earned mostly Cs in his freshman year. Now as a junior, he has all As and one B. This upward trend is appealing to colleges as it shows increased maturity. However, the lower grades might make getting into the most selective colleges a little more difficult.

Course Rigor: Rigorous

Justin hasn’t taken the most difficult schedule possible at his school, but he takes AP and honors classes in the subjects he’s interested in. As a junior, he’s taking 2 AP courses and an honors course. He goes to an elite private day school with a rigorous reputation as well.

Test Scores: PSAT—161, PLAN—22

Justin’s test scores all come from his sophomore year of high school. His score breakdown of the PSAT was Math—66, Reading—47, and Writing—48.  A 66 in math for a sophomore is the 97th percentile which is very strong. His reading and writing are in the 64th and 65th percentile, respectively. On the SAT, if Justin were to stay at the same percentiles, he would earn about a 750 on math and a 540 in both reading and writing. That puts him at a composite score of 1830 for the SAT, the 84th percentile nationally.

His PLAN test predicts he will score between a 23 and a 27 on his ACT, which is between the 68th and 87th percentiles, a big range.

In any case, Justin has strong test scores that fall well above the national average. His math score is exceptional. That said, his predicted SAT scores in the 500s for reading and writing will probably put him out of the running at the most selective schools. If Justin prepares for the SAT a lot between now and his senior year, he could potentially earn much higher scores. But based on the information he has now, the most selective schools are extremely unlikely to admit him.

The List

An excellent first tool to use in order to generate a preliminary list of colleges is SuperMatch. This tool allows you to input a variety of criteria like size, political leaning, cost, grades, and test scores. It will then generate you a list of colleges. In a way it’s like a dating website, but for potential colleges rather than potential partners.

So I entered Justin’s criteria:

  • Location Continental US — Must have
  • Major Mathematics, philosophy, and studio art — Must have
  • Tuition Up to $50,ooo/yr
  • Diversity Diverse campus — Kinda important
  • School Type Traditional 4 year college — Must have
  • School Size Small or very small — Must have
  • Campus Type Anywhere that’s not a large urban area — Must have
  • Public or Private Private — Kinda important
  • Gender Mix Coed — Must have
  • Sports Soccer — Must have
  • Greek Life Prefer schools without Greek life — Kinda important
  • Liberal-Leaning Prefer liberal leaning school — Very important

I typically find that including grades, test scores, and selectivity seem to skew the results, so I would recommend not using that part of the tool when generating a list.

The first 25 schools that came up included (in order of best match):

  • Swarthmore College
  • Whittier College
  • Whitman College
  • Skidmore College
  • Clark University
  • Pomona College
  • Amherst College
  • Carleton College
  • Vassar College
  • Beloit College
  • Pitzer College
  • Wesleyan University
  • Earlham College
  • Brandeis University
  • Occidental College
  • Kenyon College
  • Bates College
  • Sarah Lawrence College
  • Colorado College
  • Grinnell College
  • Oberlin College
  • Guilford College
  • Macalester College
  • Goucher College
  • Haverford College

So Justin and I went through the colleges one by one to see which ones met the criteria that wasn’t initially included in his list. After doing some research, he decided to cross off Swarthmore, Whittier, Whitman, Skidmore, Clark, Pitzer, Brandeis, Colorado College, and Occidental for their distribution requirements or core curricula. In addition, he eliminated Sarah Lawrence and Goucher from his list because of the unequal gender distribution.

That left Justin with:

  • Pomona College
  • Amherst College
  • Carleton College
  • Vassar College
  • Beloit College
  • Wesleyan University
  • Earlham College
  • Kenyon College
  • Bates College
  • Grinnell College
  • Oberlin College
  • Guilford College
  • Macalester College
  • Haverford College

Justin then took a look at the list of colleges with open curricula and upon further research decided to add Hamilton College and the University of Rochester.

I then worked with Justin to figure out if he had a healthy number of safeties, matches, and reaches. A college that is a “reach” has either a 20% or lower acceptance rate or is one where your SAT scores, GPA, andor class rank are below the 25th percentile. A match school is where your grades and standardized test scores fall within the middle 50% of accepted students, and a safety school is where you are comfortably in the top 25%. Justin’s breakdown became a little more complicated given that he is being recruited for soccer.

We ultimately decided that Amherst, Hamilton, Oberlin, Wesleyan, Kenyon, Haveford, Vassar, and Bates were all reach schools. Rochester, Grinnell, and Macalester were match schools. Beloit, Earlham, and Guilford were safety schools.

Each one of these schools is known for its unabashedly intellectual culture and superior education. While you might not have heard of all of these schools, they are all wonderful institutions that could potentially be great fits for Justin.

This list is definitely top-heavy, but that’s okay since it’s not a final list. With his current SAT scores, Justin is very unlikely to be admitted to Amherst, Haverford, Vassar, and Wesleyan, but that could all change in the coming year. Justin has a number of colleges that meet his criteria that hit every level of selectivity.

He isn’t finished narrowing down his list or adding other colleges to it. This is only the beginning. In the spring, Justin is going to visit a number of the colleges and do further research; and he’ll contact professors and look at review websites like CollegeProwler to identify whether the colleges really are good fits for him.

Have any more suggestions for Justin? Let us know in the comment box below.