You really should have two college lists as you consider all the options, then narrow your choices.

You often hear about “the college list” when it comes to the application process, but there are really two – one at the start that includes any school that interests you, and another narrower list created when you have compared those schools and determined the ones you’ll apply to after collecting some information.

The first list should include any school in which you are interested or that has been recommended to you. Then you should thoroughly collect information about each through visits, talking to contacts at the school and gathering data online.

“This should be the student’s list, however, not the parent’s,” says Jennifer Ziegenfus, senior assistant director of admissions at Towson University near Baltimore, who notes that parents should put the student in charge and let them explore schools with some assistance, especially when it comes to finances.

When you develop that list, keep an open mind, but consider the same things for each school including costs and financial aid, academics, location and surroundings and other intangibles about student life and the feel of the campus. You may even want to keep notes about each one on a simple spread-sheet or in one folder so you can easily compare.

“Students should think beyond things like the dining hall and location near the beach, and focus on the academic fit,” says Kiersten Murphy, a college consultant in Seattle. “Look at clubs associated with academic majors, research and internship opportunities, along with retention rates. How will they grow there as a student not only academically, but also personally.”

The second list is for schools that now interest you most and the ones you will apply to. Some experts say five schools are enough – Murphy suggests at least eight.

As you’ve probably heard, they should include “likely” schools or those where your academic profile (grades and test scores) are significantly stronger than those who are typically admitted; “target” schools where you are pretty evenly matched; and “reach” schools where the average students admitted have stronger profiles than you, according to Ziegenfus. “You should be prepared to enroll at any of them,” says Murphy.

You can start your search with platforms like NextStepU and the federal government College Scoreboard, which helps with the financial payoff for each school.

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