From a #SSS: Narrowing your college list

Liana Pickrell and Maddy Jones

As second semester seniors (a.k.a. #SSS), we have begun to reflect back on our high school experiences and look to pass along helpful advice and lessons we have learned.

For Palo Alto High School juniors looking toward next year, the college application process may seem like it’s looming over your heads. Narrowing your college list is the first step in what can be a long, and arduous process. Finalizing which colleges and universities you wish to apply to can take months, so it’s best to start as soon as possible.

Here are a few tips that we found helpful in narrowing down our own lists:

  • Check out or buy college books

There are close to 4,000 colleges in the United States, which can be extremely overwhelming. Luckily, a good way to dip your toes into the ocean of colleges is to start flipping through a college guide book, such as the “Fiske Guide to Colleges” or The Princeton Review’s “The Best 379 Colleges.” These books offer an overview of many schools, various stats and some insight into student life. You can get a sense for what schools are out there and what you want in a college by skimming through the books and picking out attributes that appeal to you. These books can be purchased in bookstores and online or rented out for free at the College and Career Center or at a local library.

  • List out attributes

After getting a sense for what’s out there, it’s a good time to focus in on what you specifically want. One of the strategies that worked well for us is to divide the attributes we were looking for into two categories: must-haves and like-to-haves. Those under the must-haves would be deal-breakers (such as the student body size or location of campus), whereas those under like-to-haves are things you could see yourself living without (such as having a good football team or the type of weather on campus). There are many Internet resources that will give you suggestions based on requirements you input like Naviance and The College Board. There are also sites like College Prowler, which host reviews from actual students at that school.

  • Seek out advice

If you start getting lost in the sea of college info that’s out there, it may be time to talk to a professional. Luckily, that’s exactly what the College and Career Center counselors are there for. All college-bound Paly juniors are recommended by their advisers to schedule a meeting with their corresponding C&CC counselor — something we recommend being on top of, since the meeting time slots fill up quickly. These meetings can help focus your college list with their realistic advice and give you a different perspective on your college process so far. Paly grads are also good resources regarding the college process and are usually happy to give their advice if you reach out to them. Some may also choose to hire a private college advisor if they want additional services.

  • Visit colleges to get a feel for different kinds of campuses

It’s one thing to read about a college, but it’s a whole other thing to actually experience a college. Knowing how you feel on a campus and getting placed in that environment can help you narrow down what you like in a college. You don’t even have to go out of the Bay Area — there are a variety of colleges within driving distance, such as Santa Clara University (27 minutes from Paly); University of California, Berkeley (59 minutes); Stanford University (5 minutes); and San Jose State University (32 minutes). Even if you aren’t interested in that particular college, going to visit can help you understand how you’d feel on a campus of that size, with that size of student body and in that environment. Sitting in on a class can also be invaluable in getting a feel for the classroom dynamics  there are a range of styles from large lecture halls to smaller, discussion-based classrooms. Since this is a place you may hope to attend for a couple of years you want to know what the education you will be getting will be like. We recommend choosing a weekend or break to visit a variety of colleges.

  • Choose a variety

We have all heard of the Ivies and the top 25 colleges in the country, but there are so many great colleges out there to choose from  many you probably have never even heard about before. We recommend that you choose colleges because they have attributes that appeal to you, like a unique major or great school atmosphere, and not solely because of the name. That being said, dream big, but you should definitely have reasonable back ups. Also, don’t overlook or underestimate safety or match schools. Naviance is a great tool to compare your academic statistics to former Paly students who applied to schools you’re interested in. Remember, these statistics are only a part of the application, but they are a great starting point to see how realistic your list is. Keep in mind that any school on your list should be one where you see yourself succeeding and enjoying the next few years of your life.