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How to choose what colleges to apply to, and how to have that shine through your essay


Deciding what colleges to apply to is a major decision. You have to try to predict where you’ll be the happiest, and which institution will support you the most on your pursuit to achieving your dreams. In a perfect world, we could apply to every college that sparks our interest, and worry about choosing among them after we find our where we were accepted. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Each college you apply to requires an application fee, and most require unique essays that take a lot of time and effort. Realistically, to avoid racking up hundreds of dollars in fees and countless hours writing essays, you should narrow your application field to about 5-7 or so schools. But how should you do that?

Ideally, you should already have a list or idea of what schools interest you. The next step will be narrowing down this list to reveal the colleges you will actually apply to. The most important thing you can do right now is research. You should already know a little bit about all of the schools you are interested in attending, but now is the time to really delve into the schools to get a feel for them deeper than what’s on the surface. You should know general things about each school, such as the location, size, and if they offer the majors that you are interested in, but you should also know the variety of programs they offer, what the required courses would be, how generous their financial aid is, what clubs and activities are offered on campus, what housing and dining plans are available, and what facilities they offer students. The best way to narrow down your search and to really get a feel for a campus is to visit. Unfortunately, that is not always an option, but some schools offer virtual campus visits that would be worth looking into. You should also see if you know anyone attending any of the schools on your list, or if you could reach out to a current student. An admissions officer or tour guide will never be as honest about a college as a current or past student, but be sure to realize that their views will still ultimately be their own opinion, and you’re likely to have a completely different experience than they did.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list to this level, it is time to sort your schools. You should have no more than 20 schools at this point. Most people advise you to sort your schools into three main categories: safeties, goals, and reaches. Safety schools are colleges that you feel as though you would definitely get accepted to and could afford to attend. These are also schools that you would enjoy attending. Goal schools are colleges you feel that you’re competitive for, and that are good matches for what you want in a school. Reach schools generally consist of top-ranking universities and Ivy League schools. These are schools that have low admission rates and are very hard to get into, but if accepted, they are definitely worth the effort.
Once your larger list is divided into three, it’s time to finalize your selections. Go through each category and choose the best options of each. You should end up with one or two safety schools, 2-4 goal schools, and one or two reach schools. Remember, each application takes a lot of time and effort, so quality is better than quantity when it comes to applying to college.

If you follow this process, you’ll already have a head start when it comes to writing your application essays. Admissions counselors want to see in your essay that you’re serious about applying to their schools, and that you’ve done your research on why you’ve chosen to apply to their school over others. You narrowed down your applications to these few schools for a reason, so now you have to make sure that reason is evident in your writing.


You should try to tie in tidbits of your reasoning throughout your essay. For example, if you are a transfer student and you’re writing about your chosen major and how you came to love that topic, you should conclude your essay by explaining how the school you’re applying to will specifically help you further your expertise in your given field. Say, if the college has a world-renowned neuroscience laboratory, and you’re interested in social neuroscience, you should highlight that and your interest in your concluding paragraph. Counselors want to know that you’ve done your research and that you’ve put forth a lot of effort into your application, because then they will believe that you will continue to put forth a lot of effort into their school. They’re looking for hard-working contributors, and going the extra mile to do additional background research can help you come off in a positive light.