College: Coming Up With A Short List

The view from the ivory tower is more coveted than ever - but it's also much harder to come by.
US News & World Report/J. MacMillan
Tempted to throw up your hands in confusion over the multiplicity of colleges to choose from? Feel like throwing darts at a wall papered with all those brochures stuffing your mailbox? In that case, you already know that narrowing your wish list to a mere handful of target, reach, and safety schools is tough.

But wait. Did someone say a "mere handful"?

Yes. Despite anecdotes of anxious students' applying to 20 schools or more, a recent survey of 600 high-achieving high school seniors conducted by the research and marketing firm Lipman Hearne found that the average number of colleges they applied to was just under four.

Surprised? It's true that over the past 10 years, the number of students applying to more than two colleges has increased with the advent of the common application and online access. But narrowing your list to a reasonable number can yield benefits that go beyond financial savings (those application fees do add up). Although some students believe they're raising their odds by applying to a dozen schools, they may end up shortchanging themselves by diluting their efforts rather than concentrating on getting to know — and making their interest known to — a smaller number of schools.

So forget the darts. Get the facts, then break down the process step by step.

STEP 1 — Don't get bogged down in where you "should" apply.

Rather than searching for a perfect match that meets your preconceived notions about college life, reframe what you're looking for as "one of many good matches," advises Michael Popkin, a family therapist and author who runs the Web site "There are many colleges that [students] will be happy at and will prepare them for a successful life."

Click here for U.S. News & World Report's "Best Colleges of 2007" rankings.

Those schools aren't necessarily the most prestigious or famous, or the ones all your friends are looking at, either. Although his father encouraged him to apply to his alma mater, Dartmouth, one student from a public high school in central Pennsylvania decided the Ivy League wasn't for him; he preferred a lower-pressure academic environment. Another public high school student, this one from New York, felt so strongly about supporting American troops in Iraq that he applied only to schools that offered ROTC.

Keeping an open mind frees you to think about possibilities, says Popkin--which, after all, is what college is about.

STEP 2 — Know thyself.

For the majority of high school students, even familiar-sounding names (Big Ten, Ivy League, mom's alma mater) "are just names they've heard or pictures they've seen," points out Mike Riera, head of Redwood Day School in Oakland, Calif., and the author of "Staying Connected to Your Teenager."

By contrast, they do know about themselves. Students who take "a few hours to think, talk, and write about" the places, activities, and settings they enjoy, the learning styles that suit them best, and the subjects that motivate them begin to develop what Riera calls "an internal map" of what they're looking for.

The challenge, then, is to find schools that value those strengths. Maybe your learning style is better suited to a work co-op program than sitting in a lecture hall. Perhaps you need a school that lets you explore different areas before you commit to a major, or your long-term goal is to work in government and you want a school with strong political science and economics. As to school size, Riera suggests thinking about whether you like to know most of the students whose faces you'll see or whether you like being surrounded by lots of faces you may meet or may never get to know.

Career counselors and online assessment tools can further help you articulate your interests and needs. And as you explore your interests, you may discover that what you originally thought you were looking for isn't what you wanted, after all.