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What Your Counselor Won't Tell You: College Lists


Published: 10/27/2021

Last Edited: 12/9/2021

Written by:

Victoria Falcon

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As a ‘fresh’ junior, I can feel the dark claws that is the college admissions process creeping up on my poor little “the last full school year I got to experience was 8th-grade” self, a dilemma that I’m sure thousands of other students are going through as well. To help make the task that is building your college list a little less daunting, here are 5 different aspects that you should consider to help refine your college list.


The college experience is undoubtedly romanticized, but the cost, on the other hand, is not. This is probably the most defining factor out of the list unless you’re vibing on a pile of money Breaking Bad style. Acknowledging the price of attending college is necessary, especially considering you might end up with the same result out of various options. To gain a sense of how much attending a college will be for you, there are net price calculators that are given by each college. You typically must know the amount each of your parents makes, along with some other information that comes from their taxes, etc. You can usually find these calculators if you look up “Name of college net price calculator.”


  • Look up the size of the school
  • Categorize it

Both academic and social dimensions of the college experience are shaped by the population. The “vibes” of a college are influenced by it— think of Legally Blonde, where you have this dichotomy of a large, public college versus a smaller, more liberal arts school. These two are on a bit of a spectrum, with a large amount of diversity between them, but a great number of colleges tend to be on either end of that "state university vs. liberal arts college" spectrum.  A quick Google search can help you determine the size, but it’s important to specify the undergraduate population unless you’re taking out a master’s or a Ph.D. (which in that case, why are you here?)
To help define what exactly a small school is versus a big one, try to think “What is a normal high school size?” If a college goes over this, it tends to lie on the bigger side of the scale, particularly if it goes over the 10,000+ mark. Socially speaking, population size can mold the amount of effort you might need to put forward to make connections. You might think that if you're introverted (shoutout to all my MBTI lovers ), a smaller school would help you to form relationships with others, just because you'll have more contact with the same people and build familiarity. However, a bigger school might prove to be more socially beneficial to you due to the larger number of people enrolled, so while taking more initiative may be required, the chances that you will meet someone with similar interests as you are higher there.
From an academic perspective, both ends of the spectrum are also valuable. Because fewer people attend smaller schools, counselors and professors can give you more individual attention, thus making it easier for you to stand out. However, there tend to be fewer resources and opportunities available. Often, larger schools have better organizations because they have a bigger field of talent and can cater to your specific academic interests with a wider selection of courses and majors. Having said all that, it shouldn't go without saying that larger schools have some potential disadvantages. With fewer outside pressures, you need to be more self-motivated.


  • Reach out to current students (your high school alumni, online platforms)
  • Check into general culture of the school you are researching if you are part of a minority group.

Unless you're a robot that derives fulfillment solely from academic success, quality of life ends up having a considerable influence on where you should attend college. Student opinions about their school are shaped by their own personal experiences, which makes it hard to assess this factor accurately. In order to get a good sense of the school you’re researching, it's important to reach out to as many current students as possible. Finding these students is as easy as reaching out to your high school alumni or any older siblings. If not, online communities are also a great place to look for the schools general culture. You can DM Facebook or Instagram organization pages that are at the school you’re looking into, especially organizations that you are interested in. When it comes to what you wanna ask them about, some potential questions might be surrounding the most popular majors at that school or the most active and prominent student organizations. Some colleges have a rich Greek life while others may barely have any at all and some colleges may have a greater amount of people pursuing STEM majors while others may not.
Looking into quality of life might also be more of a weighing factor if you are marginalized. Taking the surrounding culture of the city that the college you are researching is in can help judge safety; reaching out to current students or checking out student groups that belong to your marginalized identity as to whether they feel supported by the school can help achieve this.


  • Prestigious schools are usually top 25
  • Not-too-important, unless you want to go into a specific career field

Among all the tips to help refine your list, finding out a university's prestige is the easiest as you can simply visit sites like USNews, Niche, or Princeton Review to check rankings. Name recognition for a school is a big determinant of its prestige, with the majority of these schools lying in the top 25 national universities. Despite the name-value of the top 25, you can almost guarantee you will receive a quality education at one of the top 50 schools in the US, as well as regional recognition by employers. While also being one of the easiest to find out on this list, prestige is typically really easy to determine importance for as well.
For most, the prestige of a school is not that relevant to their career and academic goals. Getting into a prestigious school is more of an indicator of having been a hard worker than anything else. Opportunities lie everywhere, not just your shiny, name-brand schools. However, that isn't to say that prestige isn't valuable in certain situations, as it definitely is. In particular career fields, such as finance/consulting, there are highly prestigious schools that are heavily recruited from so-called “target schools,” so if you want to go to Wall Street, prestige is something to consider when applying for schools.


  • How far is it from home?
  • What’s the weather like there?
  • What are the opportunities like?
  • What is the campus’s surrounding setting? (rural, suburban, etc)

A final tip to consider is the absolute and relative locations of the schools you’re looking into. An absolute location refers to the exact location of the school on a map. Among the factors determining absolute location is whether the school is in or out of state, as well as how far away it is from your home. The importance of whether a school is in state or out of state really relies on whether it is public or not; publicly funded schools in your state of residence tend to be significantly cheaper, while private institutions tend to be the same cost everywhere. If you look at a school's distance from your home using Google Maps, you can determine how long it takes you to get between the two. This aspect of absolute location isn’t just a financial and convenience concern, but also a question of your personal independence from your family. While this shouldn’t have a firm hold on whittling down your college list, it is definitely something to consider if you feel you suffer from heavy home-sickness. However, if you can overlook home-sickness, then going out of state might be helpful if you know that the region a specific school is in has a lot of opportunities for your career field. For example, Georgetown’s location in D.C means it has a lot of internship opportunities with government fields. Lastly, in the category of absolute location, there comes weather concerns. If you are a rain lover, maybe don’t go to extremely arid campuses, as weather does have an effect on your day-to-day mood and what activities you can do.
A relative location, on the other hand, is more of the actual setting of where the campus is. This encompasses whether your campus is in more of a downtown area, at the edges of a city, etc. Relative location is important as it determines the amount of resources you might have somewhere.
If you put a lot of value into having your Chipotle Fridays, then maybe don’t go to a school that is in the middle of nowhere. Another concern might be how easy it is to get around. Depending on the size of the campus, you may need a bicycle, while others are compact and walkable.





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