When you first start looking into where to apply to college, it can be easy to add 20 schools to your list, thinking you’ll apply to all of them—you know, just in case. But when it actually comes down to writing those essays and paying those application fees, applying to every school you’ve ever considered just isn’t realistic. While it can be scary to try to narrow down the list (#NoRegrets, am I right?), there are ways to ensure you won’t be wondering what could have been when acceptance letters are sent out in the spring.
Make a decision about your major
You may be stuck with a list of 20 colleges you think you want to apply to, but one of the easiest ways to rule a few out is to consider the strength of each school’s program for your area of academic interest. If you’re thinking business, which schools have been recognized or ranked for their business schools? What percentage of students at each school graduate with your chosen major? Which schools boast clubs and career opportunities for your specific academic interest?
“Looking at the reputation of the major/program that I was interested in the most was most important during this process!” Rachna Shah, a freshman at Dartmouth College, says of her application process. “It’s a good idea to apply to a broad range of schools—ones that are most reputable in your area of interest, but also liberal arts colleges.”
Of course, if you have zero idea what you want to do with your life (no shame!), that’s cool too. Instead, look into which schools will allow you to explore in a way that won’t put you behind for graduation. Narrowing your interests to a specific area, like STEM vs. the humanities, can help in a major way. While bigger isn’t always better, larger schools may also offer a wider variety of academic programs in case you can’t decide on a major just yet.
Consider acceptance rates
Even if you slayed with your junior year grades and killed it on the SAT, it’s still important to apply to schools with a range of acceptance rates. While having a solid application increases your chances of getting into selective schools, it’s never a guarantee. Abby Piper, a junior at the University of Notre Dame, says she wishes she would have had a more well-rounded applications list.
“I made the mistake of applying to top tier schools and then ‘back up’ in-state schools that were really easy to get into and it worked out, but in the end I think if I would’ve applied to more middle-of-the-line schools in-between really easy and really hard, I would’ve had a lot more options,” she says.
If your applications list is still too long, take a look and see if you have too many with extremely high or low acceptance rates—and always make sure you have at least one “safety” school that you’d actually be excited about attending. If you know you basically already have an acceptance letter, but you know deep down you’d never attend, it’s not worth it.
Have a few “financial safeties”
Sure, you’ve heard again and again that you need to apply to “safety schools” where you’re likely to get in—but what about schools you know you’ll be able to afford? It can be easy to fall in love with a private school across the country (because, same). But if everything on your applications list comes along with a hefty dose of sticker shock (and a low percentage of students receiving financial aid), you may want to think about throwing some less expensive schools into the mix.
That doesn’t mean you have to limit your “financial safeties” to massive, public state schools either—be sure to consider potential financial safety schools where you’re more likely to get merit money based on your grades and test scores
Make visits a priority
While websites and brochures are great, college visits are the best way to know whether a school is a right fit. Some of your schools might seem perfect on paper, but once you step foot on campus, your gut will tell you whether or not it’s the right place for you.
Ideally, visit as many of your favorite schools as you can before applying—but if this isn’t an option, Cara Milhaven, a junior at Villanova University, says that talking to current students can also help you get an idea of whether or not you can see yourself at a given school.
“I’d suggest reaching out to current students there,” she says. “It was really helpful for me to be able to talk to current students from my high school that were going to the colleges I was interested in, so I could get a better sense of what each campus’s atmosphere was really like.”
Either way, it’s important to think outside the brochure when it comes to truly knowing whether you’d be happy at a school.
Look at the big picture
It can be hard to picture your future when you still haven’t decided whether you want Chipotle or Panera for lunch, but bear with me; think about where you see yourself heading after graduation. Do you want to live in a big city or a small town? Where are job and internship opportunities for your major? Do you want to study abroad? If your dream is to be a journalist based in a big city, think about crossing a few rural schools off your list. Try to visualize why going to a specific school would help you get to where you want to be in four years and avoid applying to the ones that you can’t make the case for.
If you have a list of about three times the amount of colleges you’re physically capable of applying to, don’t panic yet. When you take the time to figure out what’s really important to you about a potential school, narrowing down your list will be easier than you think!