How to Make Your Dream College List

A lot of students have a dream university – Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Yale – but smart students strive for options with multiple acceptances. That’s why we’re talking about how to create a dream college list! The perfect list for you includes within-reach, in-range, and safety universities whose profiles match what you want. How do you do that? We will go over some questions you should ask yourself or your child to help narrow down your options when figuring out how to pick the best university for you. 

It’s best to start selecting your top universities now if you haven’t already. Undergraduate early admissions applications are generally due in November. Therefore, if you want to visit a campus or have time to tailor your application to a particular college, you should have your list figured out by September at the latest. For regular applications, the deadline is usually January, so you have an extra few weeks. The exact number of universities is up to you, but a range of 4 to 8 is generally optimal. Applications cost money, so you don’t want to simply apply to every college your SAT/ACT scores qualify you or your student for.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the questions you need to think about to curate a dream college list!

What do you want to do?

This may be an anxiety-inducing question for some students, while others are bouncing in their seats, excited to share their life plan. This question is for both kinds of students, and everyone in between! If you aren’t sure what you want to study, that’s okay – you have a few options.

The best thing an undecided student can do is to pick a school with a variety of options to major in. Community colleges are a good way to feel out your potential pathway without breaking the bank. Big state schools are another option if you’re desperate to be on that 4-year track. They have a lot of degree options, and they often cost less than other universities. 

Some people worry that if they go to big schools or community colleges, they won’t have that “college experience” that they show in all the movies and your friends post about on Instagram. However, you can still have that tight-knit community! You will just have to work a little harder than some. Join clubs and organizations that match your interests. Once you become an active member, you will suddenly find yourself surrounded with a like-minded community. You can also get to know your professors with a little legwork – ask intelligent questions, chat with them before or after class if they have time, and come prepared with more questions to their office hours. Eventually, when you really get along well with a professor, you will discover that you have a strong mentor who will help guide you on your college (or even career) journey.

If you do know what you want to do, that’s awesome! It’s time to start searching for schools that rank highly for the specific degree you want. You can also look at College Board data and see what the most popular majors are for undergraduates at a specific school. For example, if we look at New York University, we see that 18% of undergraduates get their Bachelor’s in Visual and Performing Arts, while 14% do a degree in business/marketing. Therefore, it might be a good fit for future actors or Wall Street brokers!

Where do you want to go?

You or your student will likely attend university for 3-6 years, depending on classes and life situations, so it’s important to pick an area where they feel comfortable in terms of weather and culture.

However, it’s also important to remember that you will build your network in that area, so there’s a high probability of you staying in that city or state after graduating. Does that area fit your post-college plans? Are the jobs there? It’s still possible to find a job in your field outside that city once you graduate, but you will have to hustle more than some of your classmates.

Is the area one you can integrate into? It needs to fit your life, but know that your life will also be influenced by the area. For example, I used to be a picky eater, but Seattle has such a big food scene that I’ve definitely changed my ways. Surround yourself with the kind of people you want to become, because you will slowly find yourself shifting your personality to mesh with them. Same goes for where you live! These are all factors when determining what location is best for you.

What’s your budget?

There are so many factors to consider when thinking about how much you can and should spend on getting an undergraduate degree. Student loans are a hot topic in the media, and for good reason - a lot of people are living under a looming pile of student loans. Students loans aren’t inherently evil though! It all depends on how you utilize them. Apply through FAFSA to see what you qualify for, but consider taking a smaller loan and supplementing it with other avenues.

Are your parents helping you pay for college? Suggest discussing finances with your family. This is a good time to figure out budgeting together to make sure that colleges that are far out of your price range may end up on your dream college list.

Will you be working part- or full-time? Some students choose to work while taking classes, though it can be a stressful situation. Some people choose to work full-time while only taking classes part-time. It means they may come out without loans, but it could take 6 years to finish that degree. Others try to do part-time work while being a full-time student, but they need to be careful in not taking on too many hours. 20-25 hours is what most full-time students can handle. Try to look for jobs that can help your future career, but if those aren’t an option, look at jobs where you can learn a useful skill. You could even work for a grocery store or restaurant and get discounts or free food – one of the biggest categories in most people’s budgets.

How many scholarships can you get? Everyone needs to start thinking about them now, and to apply for every scholarship they are eligible for, no matter the size. $200 doesn’t seem like a lot, but for an hour of work you could get a paycheck that’s equivalent to a 20-hour work week for some people. It adds up! Some of you may be international students or undocumented, and think that you don’t qualify, but there are still scholarships out there for you. They aren’t as common and can be a little tricky to find, but you if you take the time to look, you can find them.

If you’re concerned that scholarships and loans won’t be enough, try doing 2 years of community college then transferring up to a 4-year university to save thousands of dollars. Also, don’t discount less expensive state schools. You can also transfer to a different school, or you may find that it fits your needs.

When calculating the total costs, do some homework beyond what universities post on their websites. There are other costs to consider! Look at the required textbooks for a few of the introductory classes at a school you’re interested in - how much do they cost on Amazon? Use that to estimate the cost of textbooks per quarter. How much do the dorms or an average apartment near campus cost per year? You also need to think about transportation if you end up living off campus, in addition to utilities and internet.

If you’re on campus, how much is the meal plan per year? Will that be enough to actually cover your meal costs? If you’re living off-campus, try to calculate how much you spend on food in a month. Be generous - you will spend money eating out as a way to socialize and make new friends, and if you don’t know how to cook, you’ll probably default to more expensive frozen options a lot that first year of college. To give you an idea, my last year of college, I budgeted about $100 for a month for eating out and $150 a month for groceries. That may be a little high for some people, but to me eating good food and spending time with friends was a higher priority. I compensated with other aspects in my budget - I buy new clothes once per year, I walk whenever my destination is within a mile, I don’t have terribly expensive hobbies, and I am obsessive about coupons. Evaluate your lifestyle honestly, and think about how much you will spend in a year.

Where can I get in?

There are generally two approaches people take in regards to their SAT, ACT, or TOEFL scores. Some people choose specific schools and work hard to get their test scores on par with or above the average applicant. Others take the tests, then based off their scores, narrow down the list to what schools fall within that score range. People often talk about this in terms of “safe schools” and “reach schools.” It’s important to have both on your dream college list!

But you don’t have to settle – Transcend Academy is here to help you or your student make their reach school a safe school. With our expert tutors, we can improve your scores to where they need to be to get you into any of your dream schools. In fact, 85% of our students get into one of their top 3 dream colleges! Our advisors are also here to discuss college preparation to help with everything else. Just shoot us a message and we’ll get back to you soon. We look forward to hearing from you, and good luck with picking your best universities!


What schools are on your dream college list? Let us know!

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