How to Create a Great College List

Miami University of Ohio
Miami University of Ohio

If you’re ready to finalize the list of schools you’re applying to, check out these answers to frequently asked college questions:

How many schools should I apply to?

Pick nine schools. Why nine? Because nine allows you to pick three of each of these:

  • 3 Reach (5%-25% chance of acceptance)
  • 3 Maybe (26%-60% chance)
  • 3 Match (61%+ chance)

Keep searching and researching until you’re in love with all nine – yes, even the “match” schools where you’ll likely get in. (Bonus tip: If you’re applying to the University of California schools, count them as one, since the application and essays will be the same for all of them.)

Where do I even start finding schools?

Use to search according to your interests.

Why College Express? Because school buff Steven Antonoff – who has been eating, sleeping and breathing colleges for the past few decades – developed an amazing set of lists based on years of visiting campuses, talking to professionals, and poring over the schools in deep detail. He first published these lists in his book The College Finder. And guess what? The lists on College Express are the lists from The College Finder. For free. Plus, they’re searchable. It’s pretty much my favorite resource ever.

Also, unlike some sources, Steven doesn’t rank colleges, which is tough to do anyway. He provides searchable lists grouped according to everything from “Schools for the Free Spirit” to “Great Private Colleges for the B Student.”

Here’s how to use

  1. Create a login.
  2. Type an interest in the top right corner (i.e. - “architecture” or “Div. III tennis,” etc.)
  3. When results appear, uncheck all the boxes on the right bottom corner except “list.” Then click on the list that interests you.

How do I know my chances of getting in?

You can find the general acceptance rates on lots of sites, but I recommend that you use to find out what your real chances are.

Why Parchment? Because you can enter more specific info on yourself (grades, GPA, extracurriculars, hardship, etc.) that will give you a slightly more accurate sense of how you compare. How much more accurate? It’s tough to say, but it will give you at least a sense of whether the school is a reach, maybe or match.

Also, Parchment is the transcript-sending service for many thousands of students--both when they’re sending the initial transcripts and when they send the final transcript, confirming students’ acceptance--so the site actually knows a.) that students are reporting grades correctly and b.) who was actually accepted where.

Any favorite sites for researching schools?

For the pros’ opinions, go to where you can pay for online access to the digital version of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. Money.

For the student perspective, go to where you can read real students’ opinions on their schools. But don’t just read 1-2 reviews, read a bunch of them.

I’ll be writing more about what to do after you’ve made your college list next week, so stay tuned!


Written by Ethan Sawyer – In addition to being the College Essay Guy, Ethan is a writer, teacher, speaker, and voice actor. He has worked at Elite since 2003 is also the coordinator for the Elite Community Scholars Program, a program very close to his heart. You can email him at The views expressed in this blog post are Ethan's and don't necessarily reflect those of Elite Educational Institute.