How to Narrow Down Your College List

Tips and tricks to narrow things down and make the tough decisions while you still have the time.

Photo of Ryan Walker

When I started junior year, my high school informed us that we were each limited to ten college applications or less. At first, I was somewhat outraged and honestly stressed. I felt like the power to decide my future was being taken away from me. However, once I began the rigorous application process, I started to understand why. This limitation forced us to narrow down our college list on the front end and make the tough decisions while we had the time. And realistically, not all of us had the time or money to complete “a billion” applications, nor were there actually that many schools we could honestly see ourselves at.

With that said, here are some of the ways you can narrow down your own college list:

NYU CALI Students on Tour

Tour Different Types of Schools, Even Virtually

Settle Your Internal and External Debates

There are many different types of schools, so in-person or virtual tours can help you figure out what you like, or better yet, what you don’t like. A tour does more than show you where buildings are located. It actually helps to settle broader debates (with your parents and more importantly within yourself) that, once figured out, can quickly narrow down your college list. Such debates include whether you want a city school or a campus school, a large school or a small school, or even if you want a private college or a public institution. These are essential questions to ask when trying to find a place that fits your lifestyle because often times the person who wants big Saturday football games wants a different type of school than the student who prefers small class sizes with less than ten people.

See What a School Has to Offer

A tour can also narrow down your college list by allowing you to determine which amenities are essential for you to have. Maybe you want a school library with over three million books or a state-of-the-art athletic facility where you can work out. Maybe you want the school with Greek life or one that offers volunteer opportunities over spring break. Regardless of what you are looking for, a tour will be the easiest to see what things a school has and what things you might have to sacrifice if you attend .

Picture of Gallatin school session.

Connect With Schools You're Interested In

Emailing a school, following them on social media, or sitting in on an admission’s “Welcome Session” can provide insight into what the university offers, which can help narrow down your list even further. You can learn more about the application process to determine whether the school is a reach or a safety. You can also learn more about student life and what the school has for clubs, sports, and Greek life. Additionally, you can get more information about various opportunities such as studying abroad, internships, and fellowships. Connecting with a school is also a great way to learn about financial aid and the different types of scholarships a school can provide. You sometimes also get to hear from current students who can share a fresh perspective on college life. And remember, don’t be afraid to ask questions; no question is a dumb question when trying to find a new home.

Three students holding a product prototype.

Research Your Major

Believe it or not, the same major is different at every school. No two drama programs will be exactly the same, and that goes for photography, music business, game theory, or any other discipline you choose. Each school takes its own approach, so trying to find a major you like can help narrow down your college list and remove the ones you don’t. The best way to learn more about a major is by researching it on a school’s website.

But Why Bother?

Researching your major shows you far more than just a brief overview of the major itself. You can look at core requirements and figure out how long it will be until you take classes in your major. You can also see what class structures are like, whether they take a practical or theoretic approach, or if they are  large lectures halls or small discussions. Most likely you can access past course offerings to read the descriptions and see if any cool classes pique your interest. Researching your major will also give insight to the professors and whether they still work in the industry, conduct research, or actually teach the classes offered.

Watch a Dorm Tour Video, or Two, or Three

Judge a Book by Its Cover, for Once

When narrowing down their list of schools, most people tend to focus on academics but forget to look into dorm life. It may feel superficial to judge a school based on how its residence halls look, but these rooms are about to become your home, so it has to be a place you can realistically see yourself living. To get a sense of the dorms, watch videos posted by the school. They often show the different types of rooms in the building and the other features, whether it be laundry, common rooms, bike racks, or study lounges. These videos can also help narrow down your list by determining what the deal breakers are, whether it be possible communal bathrooms, carpeted floors, or a lack of air-conditioning.

Hunt for Student Made Videos

Don’t just take the school’s word for it. Spend some time going down the YouTube wormhole and watch videos posted by students. Trust me, there is no shortage of them on the internet. Schools will always show their best rooms in videos as a way to to draw students in. But, watching a homemade video will give you an insider’s look at what dorm living is actually like for most students. In addition to showing you what students are missing or what they would change, these videos can show you how people decorate, the weird features in rooms, and what items may be useful to bring.

Best for Last, Here Is My Golden Piece of Advice:

Don't Fall Into the Name Brand Trap

Although it might lengthen your list, it’s important to note that not every school you apply to has to be a brand name school. Unknown doesn’t automatically equate to bad; thus, these colleges and universities have a place on your list, so don’t neglect them when narrowing things down. These schools tend to have more personalized learning, make resources more available to you, and tend to offer an equally quality education for a fraction of the cost. Searching “best schools for _____” on the internet is one of the best ways to generate options you never knew were possible. Such is true for me and the small unknown arts and media college in Chicago that quickly became my second choice once I had narrowed down my list.