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Articles / Applying to College / Your College Picks: Be Realistic

Your College Picks: Be Realistic

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Sept. 20, 2016

Attention high school juniors … Let's talk about selecting colleges for your application process next autumn. Let's temper your idealism with some realism.

Okay, the new U.S. News “Best Colleges" rankings have just come out and you've been scouring the listings for inspiration. Naturally, if you're like most of us, you've gone right to “the top."

For national universities …

  1. Princeton University
  2. Harvard University
  3. University of Chicago
  4. Yale University
  5. Columbia University
  6. Stanford University
  7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  8. Duke University
  9. University of Pennsylvania
  10. Johns Hopkins University


… or for national liberal arts colleges:

  1. Williams College
  2. Amherst College
  3. Wellesley College
  4. Middlebury College
  5. Swarthmore College
  6. Bowdoin College
  7. Carleton College
  8. Pomona College
  9. Claremont McKenna College
  10. Davidson College


The black hole of “prestige" (whatever that means) may be pulling you toward these stellar schools. But — and this is an important but — are any of these right for you?

Better said: Are any of these reachable for you? This is where idealism meets realism.

If you don't already know what you're up against with some of these schools, take a look at these fall 2015 overall acceptance rates:

– Stanford University 5%

– Columbia University 6%

– Harvard University 6%

– Princeton University 7%

– Yale University 7%

– Massachusetts Institute of Technology 8%

– University of Chicago 8%

– Brown University 9%

– California Institute of Technology 9%

– United States Naval Academy 9%

– Pomona College 10%

– United States Military Academy 10%

– University of Pennsylvania 10%

That's a baker's dozen of schools that offered a 10% (down to half that) chance for you to get in. Think of it this way: 95% of Stanford's applicants were denied admission, and only one in ten got into Penn, Pomona, and West Point. Do I have your attention now?

So, how do you approach the search for a sensible list of colleges?

My solution: Study the stats and trod the sod. “What the heck does thatmean, Dave?" you ask. Well, here's the key:

“Study the stats." — Look at all the data published by your “ideal" (as in top) colleges and make an objective estimate of your chances.

“Trod the sod." — Simple: Visit, walk around, take the tour, and speak with students there.

You probably can squeeze in a couple college visits now that students are back on campus. As I've said before, visiting a college while the student body is in residence is unquestionably the best time to visit. You'll feel the energy of the students, experience the atmosphere of a “live" college campus, and maybe even get to sit in on a class or two. Plus, don't forget those college tours where you get to see how accomplished some people can be at walking backward.

Okay, here's a dumb riddle: Why is college-candidate selection like a Christmas song?

The old favorite, “Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" has a lyric that says “He's makin' a list and checkin' it twice." When it comes to picking colleges to apply to, high schoolers need to make their list and check it twice. Maybe check it more than twice.

For you juniors who are considering a four-year college, now's the time to do some thinking. You may never have thought of yourself as a “consumer" about college matters. Perhaps to you, consumers are those people who buy laundry detergent and then give their opinion to some telephone survey person.

Not so fast. This is where informed decision making becomes crucial. In past comments here we have addressed the issue of money as a consideration for attending college. As you may have noted, money is only one of your considerations. Deal with it after you address some other important criteria.

When you ask yourself what you want from a college, don't be shy. What do you really want?

Do you want a school that has a beautiful campus in a secluded part of the country or one that is in the heart of a big city? Are the school's prestige and reputation important to you? Can you define what level of academics you prefer in your chosen area of concentration? How far from home do you want to be?

Will teaching assistants (TAs) instructing some of your classes satisfy you or do you want senior faculty teaching you? How about access to that faculty? Will your school have professors who are approachable in situations beyond office hours? How about student body size? How about the weather? Getting the picture here?

There are so many considerations. You are the one who should make the call, though. So what are you waiting for? Get out paper and pencil right now and write down what is truly in your heart about college. Even if you have never set foot on a college campus, you may have an ideal stored away in your dreams. Write it down (but be aware of the ideal vs. real clash). Over the coming weeks, keep adding to your list.

By Thanksgiving, you should have quite a detailed summary of what you want from a college. Then it will be up to you to find some matches for your candidate list that will form the nucleus for your college search. Your research should come from guide books, campus visits, and your own honest reactions.

The best source for your research, though, is as close as your computer.

SuperMatch is College Confidential's world-class college search tool. SuperMatch is the latest advantage College Confidential provides for high schoolers.

As the CC Web site's SuperMatch link proclaims, “College Confidential can help you narrow down your school choices. Search more than 3,000 colleges and universities by name, location, or area of study!" SuperMatch allows students and parents to search online for a college or university by using 19 criteria, including location, tuition, admission standards, major and Greek life. Check it out!


Bottom line: Informed research and college visits are the core to creating an optimum list of schools that will (should) receive your applications. You have over one calendar year to accomplish this task, so there's absolutely no need to panic.

The first place to start is College Confidential. There, you will find a huge number of resources and opinions (be careful about “opinions," though) that can be of valuable aid in the construction of your college list. Get your college process off on the right foot!


Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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