Creating Your “Perfect” List of Target Schools

As tension mounts and waves of nervous nausea abound, high school seniors across the world are suddenly finding they’re forsaking the complex social network of Facebook for the simply designed (yet hopefully more secure) That can only mean one thing: the college application season is upon us. Before digging into their applications, countless students grapple with the question, “How can I create the perfect list of target schools?”

The answer? You can’t. You can create a great list for sure, but there’s no such thing as a list that’s “absolutely perfect” for anyone. There are way too many schools out there, including outstanding ones you’ve never heard of and won’t even consider. The trick is compiling a list of places you’ve 1) heard of, 2) researched, and 3) would like to go if accepted.

Truth is, it’s a tough task for many applicants. It’s easy to fall into the trap of tinkering with the list for hours on end. At one moment, you might find yourself with 30 schools; the next, you’ve got 8, and you’re suddenly panicked that you left out “all the good ones!” Which brings me to the most important piece of advice: don’t do this. There’s a point where messing around with your master list becomes counterproductive, and you actually start taking away valuable time from meaningful application work. Worst of all, this kind of second-guessing can drive you insane. At some point, you need to make an executive decision. “Here’s where I’m going to apply, I’m happy with my choices, and I’m going to dominate these applications!” Stand on a chair and declare it proudly if you’d like.

Now I’m going to say something that’s seemingly contradictory and might make you want to strangle me through your laptop screen… This list doesn’t need to be 100% final. Okay, don’t freak out. I know I just told you to make an executive decision, but you also need to allow for some wiggle room. In an ideal world, the list would be written in stone. In the real world, however, you need to know that things can and do change. After all, it’s an application process.

You might discover that once you dig into University of Chicago’s application, you find their choice of essay topics to be irritating—“Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp?”—leading you to decide that you don’t have much to say about any of them. That’s okay. If you’re feeling overwhelmingly negative towards a certain application, go ahead and drop it. It’s not the end of the world.

On the flipside, leave the door slightly open for new possibilities. Let’s say you’ve got a debate tournament being held on the campus of Amherst in October. Even though you hadn’t even considered it as an option, your visit is enchanting. The students seem intelligent and down-to-earth, and that New England countryside is just breathtaking! Go ahead and add it to your list—for regular decision, of course, since suddenly deciding to create an early application in October would be crazy-sauce.

While you should of course be open to new options, the majority of your list must remain firm from now until your applications are complete. For those of you applying early somewhere—whether it’s Early Decision, Early Action, or the relatively new Single-Choice Early Action—that’s obviously a school choice that needs to be solidly set at this point. Also, a quick word to you early application folks: for the love of all that’s holy in this world, do NOT wait until you get that first decision to work on your other applications. That’ll leave you with only two weeks to finish everything else, and you might as well buy yourself a one-way ticket to Meltdown City.

Finally, and perhaps most practically, bookmark Total time saver.


By Stephen Black, Admissionado Senior Consultant

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