Researching Colleges + Building Your List

The College Search Process
It is important that you take time to reflect on the things you want in a college that will support you, challenge you, interest you, have the academic interests, and more. As a goal, research colleges throughout junior year and develop your college list by summer of senior year. Once you narrow down WHICH colleges you want to apply to, it becomes a lot more manageable to organize college application dates and deadlines. Even though it seems like you should apply to MORE and MORE universities, remember, you're only attending one! Applying to a balanced list of about 8 - 10 colleges can be the right sweet spot. Learn more below!

What does your dream school have? Think about components of a campus that are important to you and will allow you to thrive within that environment. Once you have your list of interests/values/wants/needs, you'll be able to use the search tools below to help you find colleges that have the components on your list.


  • Academics: What type of learning suits you best? Small-discussion based, interdisciplinary, etc. What type of academic environment do you want, academically challenging and/or competitive. What type of academic support do you need (math center, tutoring labs, support services for learning disabilities, etc.)
  • Social: Think about the types of activities your future friends and you will be doing on campus (growing your own sustainable farm for local food, going to football games, checking out art museums or local bands) How BIG or SMALL is the campus?
  • Extras: Again, start with dreaming. What type of ethos does your college have? Ethos is the heart, mission and drive of a college campus. So what would your ethos have? Sustainability, community impact, research and higher thinking, challenging academic boundaries, social justice, etc.
  • Environment: What do your actual surroundings look like? Are you in the heart of a big city, do you have access to a city but are a bit more removed. Are you at a smaller campus in the Pacific Northwest nestled in a quieter town?



Resources to help your search


Naviance Naviance stays with you throughout high school. You'll need to update your colleges I'm thinking about list and ultimately your colleges I'm applying to list. Your counselor and the college center will work with you in Naviance. Use the Supermatch search in Naviance to plug in things you want and it will suggest colleges based on your preferences. Favorite colleges and see a schedule of colleges visiting our campus every fall in Naviance.


College Express The reason why College Express is such a wonderful college exploration tool is because of their lists. You may be familiar with U.S. News & World Report’s College Rankings. Rankings can be misleading, cause anxiety and overwhelmingly make it seem like there are only a few “good” schools available. This just is not true. College Express has lists broken up by interest, learning styles, academic and social experience and so much more. Here are a few examples of some of the lists you could explore: Colleges for students needing a second chance. 10 colleges that get Greek life right. Colleges for the artist who doesn’t want to go to art school. 10 cool colleges for entrepreneurs.



Unigo Think of this as a “yelp” for college. Just like Yelp, colleges are reviewed on a first-hand experience from the students who have attended or are attending the institution. So while all colleges may seem to sound the same (i.e. clubs, Greek life, access to professors, sports teams, research and study abroad opportunities, etc.) Unigo lets students explore the “vibe” of a campus, the stereotypes, food and dorm ratings, campus facilities, ratings for nearby shops, extracurricular activities, off-campus housing and more. Dive a little deeper and hear from students. As with Yelp I caution students to read multiple reviews to get a bigger picture.


Google Maps This one might seem out of place, but I promise it’s a powerful tool. It can be hard to have faith that a college is a good “fit” for you when have never visited the campus. Google maps has the amazing ability to help create a vision of not just the campus, but its surroundings. Put the university in the search engine and zoom out a little. What do you see? Museums? Mountains? Access to a metro station that takes you into town? Where is the closest airport? What is the population of the town around campus? What does the closest town have? Google maps can help paint a bigger picture, use it and explore.


YouVisit Take a virtual tour of campus and hear from a recorded tour guide. Take a tour of the science facilities, learn more specific facts about a brand new gym and just explore a little more. It can be tough to decide where to take a college tour and you may not get to travel all over, but this is a free accessible resource as your fingertips.


Corsava Cards You can go through a deck of cards that present different components of a college and decide if you must have it as a part of your experience, or if you simply don't need it. This is a great starting point and helps you get a sense of what colleges offer.



Western Undergraduate Exchange Search for affordable out-of-state options. A lot of my families will automatically take an out-of-state school off the table purely because of cost. The initial “sticker price” of tuition can be shocking, especially out of state. Western Undergraduate Exchange offers a list of colleges in various Western states who offer a reduced tuition rate to qualifying neighboring states. 


Visit a campus! Small, large, research based, liberal arts, art institute, in a city. What does it feel like? Visit! Find a few different campuses to explore (private, public, large, small, religious, institute, etc.) Even if you plan on going out of state, the value of touring a college and looking closer at programs is immeasurable. Visit our page for more information.

Building a Balanced College List
Understanding your chances of admission can alleviate a lot of the pressures of Where will I end up??? 
Begin with the college search process. Understand your needs, wants, values in a college, and have an idea of what types of colleges you're applying to.
From there, you'll begin to determine your chances of admission, or rather, if a college is a reach, target, or likely school for you to gain admission. Keep in mind, just because a college is a reach, or in the top 20, for example, does not guarantee you'll have a phenomenal experience that will automatically propel you into success and stardom!! Finding the right college fit, the right program, and the right environment, will help you understand which college will give you the best return on investment, and set you up for success! 
Colleges will review you within the context of your high school curriculum and what you did or did not have access to. They'll review your rigor (advanced courses, Honors, AP, etc.) and how you've challenged yourself over time since freshman year. They'll review grade trends, and also look at your GPA. 
Utilize Scattergrams in Naviance to get an idea of average academic profiles of colleges that accepted Beverly students. 

Estimating chances of admission

Typing into Google search bar: I have a 3.7 GPA, what are my chances of getting into Northwestern? Or, “Hey Siri, how do I get into Harvard?”

How do you know if you’ll get accepted to the college of your dreams? Or how about college in general? Rather than applying literally praying to the Gods that you’ll get accepted, take control in understanding how admission decisions are made and what data you can collect to have a strong idea of your odds of admission.

Let’s take a look at the factors and tools that will help you understand your chances of admission and help you build a balanced college list.

How colleges review your GPA and test scores

It’s important to understand that colleges review your application within the context of your high school and what you did and did not have access to. Every high school has varying curriculums, Ex., AP courses, IB, honors, no AP coursework at all, and different grading systems and courses offered. Because of this, admission counselors get to know their territories and understand the make up of each high school. They get a sense of how students do academically within that given environment and that a 4.0 GPA at Desert High School is not automatically comparable to Ocean High School.

You’re looking to get a sense of where you are academically in comparison to your peers, and also how past applicants from your high school faired in the admission process. This isn’t to say that you’ll text all your friends and ask how Mary got into Berkeley, but it can be helpful to know if you’re in the top 30% of your high school, for example. Here are some ways you can gain some context:


  • Review your high school profile. Here’s our profile. We provide a grade distribution, we list the courses so a college can see if a student took the highest math offered to them or if they doubled up on foreign languages, and how our AP scores or SAT/ACT score averages trend.
  • Check out Naviance or ask your counselor if there’s any system that collects data on college application trends and academic profiles. Naviance offers Scattergrams. These charts help show past year’s GPA and test scores for specific universities and the decisions. So, you could look up the University of California, San Diego and see that the average GPA of accepted students from your high school in the past four years has been a 4.37 weighted GPA and a 3.8 unweighted GPA.
    • Disclaimers:
      • Data can often be self-reported
      • The charts do not show qualitative factors (essays, letters of recommendations, special circumstances, activities + awards, etc.)
      • It is an average GPA with a number of factors, so if you have a 3.6 and want to apply to UCSD in our example above, you won’t be automatically denied, remember, you’re gathering information to make the best educated decision to balance your college list


In keeping the theme with GPAs and academic trends, you’ll also want to look directly on the college’s website for average academic profiles of past admitted applicants. There are a lot of blogs that compile data BUT keep in mind going directly to the source when it comes to the most up-to-date information is best, so yes, if you like it, read the blog, BUT in addition go to the college’s website, talk to an admission counselor, and gather information directly from the source.


Go to the college’s website you’re interested in and search admitted student profiles (you might have to dig a little) but find the page, again on the college’s website) that shares test scores, admit rates, and oftentimes GPAs to see the ranges and assess how academically competitive you are.

HINT: If a college is test optional, you can see if your SAT or ACT score is within or above the ranges to make a judgement call and send your score or not! Also, not all colleges require tests!


At this point, you’ll want to keep track of this info so you can compare and review it as you keep going. Really an excel spreadsheet, a word doc, or even good old fashioned pen and paper is fine. Just make some columns and have a few categories like this will do…

College High School Academic Stats College Academic Stats Acceptance Rate Why I like the school

Institutional priorities

Now’s the part where you learn fancy college terms…ready? 


Institutional priorities are the internal powers that be. What does that mean? Every college has their own internal priorities that you may never hear about and are essentially unpredictable that drive decisions. Like if an alumni donated to the music department and there’s now an initiative to increase the program, so one year you hear more students getting in. Or if there’s an initiative to increase a student population, or to cut back on funding in a certain program.


This stuff can drive you nuts, and it can also change year to year. College admission decisions in a holistic admission review process are rarely predictable, which is why we go at length to discuss a balanced college list that you’ve researched extensively and also added at least 2 or 3 colleges that you’re likely to get into AND would actually attend.


In a holistic admission review process, admission counselors review a number of pieces as a part of their admission process such as academics, letters of rec, essays, testing, activities, etc. Each piece may hold a bigger weight, but ALL parts are considered.


The best thing you can do about institutional priorities is try not to predict them. If your neighbor said they volunteered at this shelter that the college loved, don’t assume you should volunteer at the same shelter. The next best thing you can do is get to know your regional admission counselor. Every college has one and their job is to help inform prospective students and can often be one of the readers on your college application. Get to know them, they can advocate for you, and help give you inside information they can share, like how to strengthen your application, like snagging that alumni interview.


Demonstrated interest

This leads us to demonstrated interest. Another fancy term that colleges use to gauge your interest in actually attending their university. It is important to note that NOT ALL colleges use this, so check with your admission counselor. It’s not the end all be all, but it can be incredibly helpful for both parties involved. It’s a win win, when you get to know the university, visit campus (virtually or in person), attend an admission presentation, fill out an interest form online, etc. You get to hear more about the university and if it’s a good fit for you AND the admission counselor sees that you’re actually interested, which can help them feel more confident in accepting you. Think about throwing a party and no one showing up. They can track your interest and feel confident about their invite!


When to apply

As you near fall of your senior year, you will have a solidified college list. This is where your excel sheet adds more columns and you take a look at decision dates and deadlines and admission plans.

When you apply is all about when you can present the strongest application. If there is an early admission plan (deadlines typically due November 1 or 15 of senior year) and you have essays completed, letters of recommendation requested, and feel confident about your grades, for example, early may be in your best interest.

If you’re a late bloomer, or had something outside of your control that affected grades, and you really want to show off your first semester senior grades, you might consider applying all regular decision, giving yourself time to present a stronger application.

Note: There are binding decision plans such as early decision or restrictive early action, where you apply to a binding decision plan to ONE university and if accepted, you withdraw all applications and attend that university. There are pros and cons to this and will vary on the student and university. Check with your counselor, see if it’s a right fit, and always check financial aid and estimate college costs, as decisions will come out prior to receiving a financial aid package.

LASTLY, GPA might deter you from even getting to know a college. Just because it’s a selective institution does not mean you’ll LOVE your experience there! On the flip side, applying to college that you’ll get into but won’t attend doesn’t leave you with options!


BTW there are thousands of four year college and universities across the United States, not including international universities. A majority of those schools have higher acceptance rates (see below!). There are plenty of options, so do yourself a favor and begin your college search and don’t limit yourself. As you get to know what you want, you can narrow down schools and ultimately ensure you have list of colleges, nicely balanced, and all with the things you love.