Creating the right college list is a key step — some would say the key step — in the college search process. A college list is the list of colleges that your teen has determined, after extensive research according to their personal criteria, that they want to apply to. Experts say a teen’s college list can start small and grow large (or vice versa), but when it’s time to apply their college list should have 10 to 12 schools that offer the academics and environment your teen wants for their college experience.

7 tips to help you create your college list

  1. Start early and have fun

    Most college counselors recommend starting the process of looking at colleges during junior year. But Karen Hawkes, who runs College Concierge Pro, an in-person and online college advising service based in the San Francisco Bay Area that helps sophomores, juniors, and seniors with the college list and application process, recommends that parents of high school and even middle school students drop in at local college campuses whenever they can for sports, cultural events, or just to have lunch. She also recommends adding a college visit into any family travel plans.

    “Seeing a range of colleges gives kids a head start when it comes time to make a [college] list,” Hawkes says. “And casual college visits here and there are so much better than a packed schedule of visits to multiple campuses in your child’s senior year.”

    For far-away schools, she says, encourage your teen to take a virtual tour and to attend local college fairs.

    The key is not to wait until senior year to start the college search process, because that’s when teens need to focus on their applications. When you wait too long to make a college list, you risk overlooking or missing schools that could be great options.

  2. Search for colleges with an open mind

    It’s easy for teens to get hooked on the idea of a college they’ve heard of for some reason — be it a sports championship, a famous alum, or because it’s the alma mater of someone in their family or friend circle. But encourage your child to start the search with an open mind. These five websites each help students understand different attributes — like size, location, selectivity, specialties, and even campus culture — of colleges and universities.

    College Results Online
    This college search tool, created by the nonprofit Education Trust, provides information like acceptance and graduation rates, price, and student demographics for colleges and universities across the country. Your teen can also use this tool to compare multiple colleges to see how stats about financial aid, average GPA and median SAT and ACT scores stack up.

    Colleges That Change Lives
    Inspired by the popular book with the same name, this nonprofit provides information on colleges and universities that offer innovative, transformative, and student-centered approaches to higher education.

    College Navigator
    This college-search tool, created by the U.S. government’s National Center of Education Statistics, provides detailed information — including the average amount of various forms of financial aid that students receive and a comprehensive list of all academic areas of study — on all U.S. colleges and universities.

    College Board
    Using this search tool, teens can look for colleges based on a range of factors including location, selectivity, majors, activities, and price.

    Created by ScholarMatch, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps students from low-income households and first-generation college students with the college search process, this search tool provides information on about 300 colleges and universities known to provide support, financial aid, and other opportunities for students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year.

  3. Keep track

    Hawkes helps the students she works with create a sheet for all the colleges they’re considering. Early in the process, the sheet should include information on each college your teen visits or researches, including size, top majors and other programs, admissions requirements and deadlines, and whether the school’s admissions requirements make it a reach, target, or safety school for your child (see #4 for more). Later, your teen can add columns to check off when they’ve submitted applications, SAT or ACT scores, teacher recommendations, and other requirements.

    Hawkes says being organized can reduce stress levels for your teen and your family in two ways: it helps your teen keep track of all their research and it allows families to compartmentalize the college search process a bit. She recommends that families designate a specific time every week to check in with the process, and to leave the subject alone the rest of the time. “Kids are so busy their junior and senior years that you hardly ever see them,” she points out. “When you do get time together, it’s precious, and you don’t want to spend all of it talking about college. Kids are already stressed about the process. If that’s all you can talk about, you’re going to stress them out even more.”

  4. Categorize colleges by safety school, target school, and reach school

    Determining whether a particular college is a reach, target, or safety school for your teen is all about the numbers. While researching colleges, (see #2) your teen will learn the colleges’ admission rates, and the median GPAs and SAT and ACT scores so they may determine their chances of admission.

    While any school that admits only a small percentage of applicants is considered a reach school for everyone (such as Ivy League schools), it’s important to categorize the schools on your teen’s college list in terms of his or her grade-point average (or GPA) and test scores. A college should be considered a reach for your child if their test scores and GPA are at the lower end of (or below) what that college typically accepts. If their test scores and GPA align with that of accepted students, it’s a target school. A safety school is one that accepts a high percentage of applicants and/or one for which your child’s GPA and test scores make them well-qualified.

    Both Hawkes and Nick Watson, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships at ScholarMatch, recommend that students apply to about 10 schools, a dozen max, and include an even mix of reach, target, and safety schools.

    Your teen should not hesitate to include schools that are an obvious reach, particularly if they would be a good fit. Why? Because many selective colleges consider non-numerical factors, like activities and accomplishments, when making admissions decisions. Just be sure that your teen’s college list is about one-third reach schools, one-third target schools, and one-third safety schools. Otherwise, your child risks ending up with zero acceptance letters despite doing so much hard work to apply.

  5. Prioritize your college list by fit

    Talking to friends and relatives, spending time on college search websites (see our list above), envisioning life in college, and in-person or online visits can all help your teen start to determine what appeals in terms of fit and create a preliminary college list. It’s okay if your teen’s initial list is long — it’s great if they are interested in a lot of schools. You can can help narrow the list by asking questions about fit like:

    • Do you want to stay close to home for college or go across country?
    • How often do you want to be able to come home — for the weekend to do laundry or only on holidays?
    • Are you looking for a small campus or a large university?
    • Does X school have interesting-sounding classes in subjects you’re considering majoring in?
    • Are certain sports, clubs, or activities must-haves for you?

    ScholarMatch’s Watson says it’s crucial to make sure teens understand the difference between match and fit. “Match involves concrete, quantitative factors like, ‘do my test scores and GPA fall in the range of what this college accepts?’ Fit is more personal — and involves factors like geography, school size, class size, and campus culture. Fit includes a sense of belonging: are there other people at the school who look like me? If you know you”ll need academic support, is that something the college offers? Fit ultimately means that when you step onto that campus, you are going to feel that you are in the right place.”

    A college may be a good match but a poor fit — and this is something only the student can decide.

  6. Talk about how much college costs

    It’s not news that tuition at most colleges these days is eye-popping — and going up every year. Tuition alone shouldn’t automatically rule a specific college out, though, because it may be a school that gives a lot of financial aid or your child may qualify for scholarships. When your teen starts thinking about college, it’s time to talk about your resources as a family, how much you are able to pay, and how much debt you are willing to take on. The earlier you talk about this, the earlier your teen can start applying for scholarships and looking into different ways to economize. For students who want to attend the University of Hawaii, for example, it may be worth taking a gap year and establishing residency in the state, which could bring the annual tuition down by about $20,000.

    Many students only apply to state colleges and universities because they — and their parents — assume that private colleges will be too expensive. In fact, many private schools have large endowments and offer generous scholarships based on merit or/and need, so it’s a good idea to include some of both types of schools on your teen’s college list.

    But if a school offers minimal financial aid, or if it is across country and your family budget makes airfare prohibitive, for example, then maybe your child shouldn’t include it on their college list. Having these discussions before a student’s list is finalized will prevent wasted effort now and disappointment later on.

  7. Keep calm and stay open

    To make the college search process less soul crushing, my daughter advises: “Try to have more than one first choice.” Making sure that every school on your teen’s list is a good fit means they’ll be less stressed out (and potentially disappointed) when the college decision letters start rolling in. My daughter followed her own advice: she received some rejections and acceptances, and in the end chose the school that offered her the best financial package. She just completed her freshman year and is very happy with her choice.

    Hawkes points out that many schools are a good potential fit for your teen. She also reminds parents and teens not to stress too much. No college decision is final. “If you’re not happy with your college choice you can transfer,” she says. “It’s not the end of the world.”