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How To Build Your College List from Home During COVID-19

 It’s like the pause button on the world’s universal remote is stuck. Everything feels suspended — social events, trips, and, for some, meetings around college advising with your high school counselor. 

The last thing you should be putting on hold is the future of your education. 

Here to fill in that void is the Senior Vice President of Cappex and leader of the Student Services division, Tim Brennan. He’s put together a webinar on how to create your college list at home during COVID-19, from choosing colleges that are the right fit for you, all the way to getting their attention! 

Why Build a College List Now?

On top of the fact that you’ll thank yourself six months from now, it’ll keep your junior year trucking along, right on schedule. It can feel a bit soon to be putting this list together right now, so remember: this doesn’t mean it’s set in stone, so take that pressure off of yourself. 

What we’re doing today, really, is deciding what you care about. This initial list will get the ball rolling when it comes to virtual visits, demonstrated interest, and finding things that are deal breakers for you. 

Secondly, what today does is help you find your non-dream schools. It can sound pessimistic, like there isn’t confidence you’ll make it into your dream school, but the reality is that dream schools for many are the top 50 colleges and universities in the nation— for many, it’s an even smaller subset of colleges, the Ivy Leagues. The Ivies consist of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Penn.

Understanding the Role of Selectivity 

Despite knowing the requirements for applying to institutions like the Ivies inside and out, it’s impossible to guarantee admission into schools with such selective acceptance rates. You could be valedictorian with a hefty list of extracurriculars, community service, play a sport, an instrument, and have been named “Student Most Likely to Attend an Ivy” for 8 years running, but…

Here’s the thing. There are 37,100 high schools (both public and private), and each one has their own valedictorian. In 2019, the Ivies accepted a total of 22,237 students into their freshman classes. 

As you can see, those numbers don’t work out very nicely, and, the point we’re trying to make is this: it isn’t because you don’t have the qualifications to attend an Ivy League school, it’s legitimately because there isn’t the capacity. 

Apply to your dream school, your Ivy League or college in the top 50, work hard to get noticed by the college, and never ever give up on your goals. 

Let’s just have a backup plan, yeah? 

You don’t go jumping off something with a bungee cord or a parachute, tightrope walkers don’t walk without nets, and you shouldn’t apply to only one college, especially not one with such selective admission rates that they can’t take everyone who’s qualified to be accepted. 

That said — figure out what you prize most about your dream college. Look past the name, and also understand where your colleges fall on the selectivity scale.

What Are the Four Selectivity Categories? 

The four selectivity categories are as follows: 

Likely Schools: Colleges that very likely will accept you. Your grades and scores far exceed their averages. (Apply to 2-3 of these)

Target Schools: Colleges that likely will accept you, but there’s a chance that they may not. Your grades and scores are at or above their averages. (Apply to 3-5 of these)

Reach Schools: Colleges that there’s a slim chance they’ll accept you, but there’s still a chance. Your grades and scores are on the lower end of their average, or lower than what they typically accept. (Apply to 2-3 of these)

Far-Reach Schools: Colleges whose acceptances are unpredictable (i.e. the Ivies) or where it’s unlikely you’ll be accepted because your grades or scores are far below their averages, but #yolo, right? (Apply to 0-2 of these)

So, how do you determine where schools land in these categories? Well, shameless plug, you can use our What Are My Chances? ™ calculator, but you can also do the legwork yourself using Cappex’s college profiles.  

Check out this slide from Mr. Tim Brennan’s presentation, and then let’s talk about it. 

This image is of a powerpoint slide showing types of selectivity levels in comparison to test scores.

Notably, the “Far-Reach” school list always includes: Brown University, California Technical Institute, Columbia University in New York City, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Northwestern University, Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), Vanderbilt University, and Yale University. 

For all other institutions, you’ll want to take a much closer look at the average admitted test scores and GPAs of students. Have your own numbers handy to make this easier. We’ll go through a few examples.

Let’s use the following numbers in the example: I’m a student with a 27 ACT score and a 3.4 GPA. 

Scenario 1: School A has a student body where the Middle 50% of students have an ACT score of 23 to 26, with an average GPA of 3.1. For me, School A would be considered a “Likely School.” 

Scenario 2: If I’m looking at School B, I need to do this process again. School B has a student body that’s a bit different than School A, with the middle 50% of students having ACT scores between 26-28, with an average GPA of 3.3. Considering that information, this is a “Target School” for me — I fall exactly in the middle of their range. 

Scenario 3: Finally, I want to look at School C. Their students score higher than the previous two, with the middle 50% achieving a solid 27-29 on their ACT. Their average GPA is 3.4. While I fall in those numbers, I’m in the 25-50% test score range, which, for me, makes this a “Reach School.” 

For a Far-Reach school, scores will fall below that middle 50% — and none of this is saying not to apply. There’s a chance to be accepted at any of these schools. It’s just knowing the odds and making sure you have all of your bases covered. You want to get into the best school possible, so don’t be afraid to reach for it! 

Just have some equally good options at also great schools that are a bit easier to reach. 

Get Clear on What Matters to You

Knowing what you want is the real key to list-building, and you’ll want to start with the four biggies: academics, social fit, post-college, and financial cost.

This image is from a powerpoint slide breaking down the different types of fit when it comes to choosing a college: academic, social, post-college, and financial fit.

Academics is the reason for college in the first place, which means it should be the first consideration — even if you’re undecided. This isn’t to say that you need to know the course of study you want to commit to right now, but it’s a good idea to know where you’d like to start, even in the broadest of categories, like English. 

If English is what you’re interested in, then you don’t have to worry too much about picking a particular college. Most institutions have a thriving English or Literature department along with a variety of majors to choose from. If you’re looking at a more “specific” broad category, like Physics, you’ll want to put more effort into your college search. 

If you know your major, you can ask more specific questions, but make sure to narrow down by academics first, whether your area of study is highly specialized or not.

  • What colleges have the major you’re interested in? 
  • Do you want lecture halls or small class sizes? 
  • Is this program popular at the college? Is it well-ranked by industry publications for that major? 
  • Do the professors still work in the industry they’re teaching? (Published books, side projects, involvement in research, etc.)
  • Look through the course catalogue — are there interesting courses you’d want to take? 
  • How available are internships and research opportunities? 

Once you’ve narrowed down based on that, move onto checking the other elements of preference, and make sure that your list runs of the gamut on the Selectivity Spectrum. 

Social Fit is next up on the totem pole, and it’s a broad category. It encompasses geography, extracurriculars, and campus life. Social Fit can be especially helpful in narrowing down institutions if your academic area of focus is offered at a lot of institutions. 

Make a list. Make sure you think hard about each aspect listed in the slide below and make your own list of wants and don’t wants.

This image is a powerpoint slide breaking down types of social fit, including Geography, Extracurricular, and Campus Life.

To reiterate, you don’t have to go into this blind. Think about your dream college and parse out what exactly it is that makes it such a dream to you. 

Let’s use Dartmouth College as an example. This Ivy, the smallest and second youngest, is the main attraction in its town and features a unique course structure called “D-Plan.” Highly customizable, more than half of Dartmouth students study abroad and it also allows students to pursue internships during any time of year. 

What can we take from these top things mentioned? 

Well, we can presume that I’d like to go to a smaller college, perhaps in a college town (one). I’d like to travel abroad, so I want to make sure to focus on finding institutions providing a range of options for education outside of the US (two). Lastly, I think internships are important and want to pursue one (if not more) (three). 

Based on these three things, I might want to consider adding colleges like Miami University, University of Denver, Elon University, and possibly Syracuse University even though it’s larger, since all four send a large number of students abroad each year.  Miami U, University of Denver, and Elon University are all smaller, too, checking off two boxes on the list. 

Get the drift? Follow your favorites and find colleges that offer what you love most about your dream college to flesh out your list. 

Things to Consider: 

  • School Size
  • School Setting
  • Distance from Home
  • Diversity of Student Body
  • Religious vs. Secular Schools
  • Extracurriculars, Clubs, & Sports offerings
  • On and Off-Campus Housing Options
  • School/Life Balance

After Academic and Social Fit, take a look at your intended Post-College path.

This is an image of a powerpoint slide showing things to think about regarding fit post-college, including job prospects, job proximity, and grad school.

Check the employment rates, check the average salaries, and definitely check resources provided. Sometimes the employment rates and average salaries only cover a subset of students who answered the survey, but it’s always worth a glance. 

Graduation rate is always a good indicator of a college that provides for its students, so don’t forget to check that as well. 

When it comes to your college’s location, you’ll want to think a bit about where the industry you’re interested in is. For some, there are very definitive locations you’ll want to be, like there are a number of jobs in automotive that you’ll find mainly in Detroit, or the Motor Metropolis. A lot of tech companies are run out of Silicon Valley, and the large book publishers are primarily in New York.  

This isn’t the case for every industry, but keep in mind that being near a location with options for internships during school can also lead to good opportunities for work after school. You’ll also want to consider grad school opportunities. You may not know whether you want to go to grad school definitively yet, but it’s nice to have options, right? 

Financial Fit, the final really important “fit,” is often the most frustrating. A lot of families operate on the “well, get into the college and then we’ll talk about how to pay for it.” 

Tim Brennan recommends the exact opposite. Set expectations upfront and, if a college you’re really interested in is too expensive, determine how much you’d need in merit aid, from FAFSA, and in scholarships to make it affordable. 

Going into this application process without understanding the financials can lead to some serious disappointment, especially if the majority of the colleges you apply to are financially out of range. 

And, most importantly, if you’ll be taking on significant student loans, make sure you understand how debt works. Student loans capitalize on themselves after four and a half years, and if you don’t know what that means, you need to learn more before committing to taking out loans. 

Things to Think About: 

  • How important is the cost of tuition, room/board to your family? Is it a deal-breaker? 
  • What is your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC)? 
  • What is the actual price of the college (sticker price vs. net price)?
  • What does success in the application process look like for you? Is it getting accepted to the most selective school on your list or is it unlocking the maximum amount of aid? 
  • Compare the cost of your degree to the value of it in the workplace. 
    • Expanding on that, the goal is to pay off your college education within 10 years after graduation, and it’s recommended by the US Department of Education that students do not take on a student loan payment exceeding 20 percent of the total projected discretionary income.  
      • For example, if your college education ultimately costs $100,000 (including interest), you’ll need to pay $10,000 dollars per year to pay it off within that ten years. To accomplish that, you’ll want a salary of absolutely no less than $50,000 per year. The more you make, the more you can put towards your loans, the less interest you’ll pay. Do the math.

Success in College Applications: You Edition

One of the final things that may skew your list is your definition of success. What does success mean to you? Is it getting into the most selective or prestigious school, or is it unlocking the maximum amount of aid? Is your idea of success all about where college takes you post-graduation, either to the workforce or graduate school? 

Depending on your definition, you’ll need to take a somewhat different approach to building your school list. 

Following the path to prestige likely means a lot of extra time and effort. You’ll want to apply to more schools than the average student, most of which will require multiple supplemental essays that will require a lot of bandwidth. 

If your goal is to make college more affordable or to leave without much debt, you’ll want to craft a college list that is most likely to offer aid. To hit this sweet spot, you’ll really want to diversity where you apply. Make sure your list has a combination of in-state, out-of-state, public, and private colleges. Find colleges where you are at the top of the standardized testing and GPA ranges, increasing your odds of getting significant merit aid packages. Finally, apply to a heavy number of schools in the Target and Likely range. 

When success in job placement or graduate school is your primary focus, you’ll want to really do a deep dive into data about the school itself, as well as the specific department you want to join. Your list should be diverse and span the Likely, Target, and Reach categories evenly. 

Be open-minded, explore schools you’ve never heard of, and really hone in on opportunities provided at the institutions you’re looking at — how many students get internships? What’s the job placement rate? Starting salaries? Medical school acceptance rates? 

The Anatomy of a Good College List

Like we talked about in the beginning, we want you to reach as high as you possibly can with your application, but we also want to give you the best odds possible for getting accepted into a college that’s going to work all around for you. 

Take in everything we’ve discussed, decide on your meaning of success, and hit the ground running. At the end of the day, the average student should send in between 8 to 10 applications, and the breakdown should cover most (if not all) selectivity categories.  

  • 2 to 3 Reach Schools
  • 3 to 4 Target Schools 
  • 3 to 4 Likely/Safety Schools 
  • 0-2 Far-Reach Schools 

Applying to more than 10 means that you likely haven’t narrowed down what you want enough (or you’re following the path of prestige), while applying to too few limits your options to choose as well as to compare financial aid offers. 

How to Research Schools During COVID-19

It’s wild out there, and it’s hard not to feel invisible right now, but there are a number of things you can do to reduce that feeling. 

  • Sign up for mailing lists and, when emails arrive, open them to click through links. 
    • (Marketing departments can see this when you’ve clicked through!)
  • Attend virtual visits, including lectures, tours, Q&A sessions
  • Read the back-issues of the campus newspaper to learn about what is going on from a student perspective
  • Follow the school’s social media
  • Find YouTubers that have talked about their journey through the school 
  • Reach out to alumni from your high school who attend that college to see if they’d meet virtually to discuss what life is like there

For students interested in more advice, Cappex Advising is here to help! Schedule a free consult today. If you’re a student, we ask that you invite a parent to join us on the call!

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