Selecting Your Target Colleges: Where to Start?

One of the most crucial elements to a satisfying college experience is making the right school selection—which means conducting a thorough search for all your college options. With over 2,500 institutions of higher learning in the United States, it's best to begin narrowing down the list by keeping in mind what you do/don't want in a college.

Grab a piece of paper and a pen to take our quick brainstorming quiz—it'll help you identify what characteristics would describe your ideal college. Then you can use our College Search to find out which colleges match up with your priorities.

  1. Rate how important a school's geographic location is to you:
    • Most important: Location is the determining factor in choosing schools for application.
    • Very Important: Location will play a major role in choosing schools.
    • Important: I will consider schools' locations, but I have priorities other than location primarily driving my decision.
    • Indifferent: Location will not affect how I choose my schools
  2. Which geographic regions appeal to you the most when looking for a school?
    • Mid-Atlantic
    • Midwest
    • Northeast
    • South
    • West
  3. What settings appeal to you when looking for colleges?
    • Big city
    • Small city
    • Big college town
    • Small college town
    • Urban setting
    • Rural setting
  4. Which college size appeals to you? You might have more than one answer to this question.
    • Up to 3,000 students
    • 3,000-6,5000 students
    • 6,500-10,000 students
    • Over 10,000 students
  5. Which do you prefer?
    • Single-sex college
    • Coed college
  6. Is there a particular religious affiliation or population that is important to you?
  7. Do you want an academically demanding environment, or would you prefer a college where you can do well without undue stress?
  8. Do your personal or career interests require specialized facilities?
  9. Is a strong creative arts program important to you?
  10. Are you interested in a particular sport, or do you want a particular athletic program? If so, what Division?
  11. Are you interested in joining a fraternity or a sorority?
  12. Are you interested in participating in an off-campus internships or research?
  13. Do you want to spend part of your college experience studying abroad? If so, where?
  14. Are college costs of great concern to you and/or your family?

Your Academic Profile

After prioritizing the elements of your ideal college, you are ready to begin developing a list of colleges that are a match for your interests, talents, and academic abilities. Identifying your academic profile will allow you to understand how your academic background compares to the average admitted student at a college.

Make a list of the following indicators:

  • Your GPA
  • Class Rank
  • SAT/ACT score(s)
  • Intended Major(s)

Utilizing your academic profile, find the college category on the chart below that best fits your grades and test scores. Identifying your academic category will allow you to effectively begin your college research.

  Most Competitive Highly Competitive Very Competitive Competitive Less Competitive Non-Competitive
Grade Average A+ / A A- / B+ B+ / B B / B- B- / C C
Combined SAT score 2050-2400 1800-2050 1650-1800 1350-1650 Below 1350 N/A
SAT Subject Tests Required Usually 3 Usually 3 1-3 tests strongly recommended or required Subject tests may be recommended for placement Not required for admission Not required for admission
Grade Average A+ / A A- / B+ B+ / B B / B- B- / C C
Typical Academic Requirements
English 4 years 4 years 4 years 4 years 4 years 4 years
Math 4 years 3 years 3 years 3 years 2-3 years 2-3 years
Social Studies 4 years 4 years 4 years 4 years 4 years 4 years
Science 3-4 years 3-4 years 3 years 2-3 years 2-3 years 2-3 years
Foreign Language 3 years 3 years 3 years 3 years 2 years N/A

Your list should reflect a variety of colleges. Ideally, a college list includes one or two "dream" schools (colleges you would love to attend, which are perhaps slightly more competitive than your academic profile), three or four "match" colleges (schools which seem to be a good fit for your academic profile, and are likely to admit you), and one or two "good chance" colleges, colleges you believe are quite likely to look favorably upon your application.

College Search

Once you've got your priorities and academic profile mapped out, use our comprehensive college search tool to find colleges based on a variety of criteria, including:

  • Location and campus setting
  • Size
  • Available programs of study
  • Selectivity
  • Religious affiliation

You'll find detailed profiles of over 4,000 institutions with information that can help you decide where to apply—and you can even create a personalized college search list with our college briefcase and organizer and track your progress in the application process.

Get started today.

Register on and access the college search tool from your personalized homepage.