How do I start a college list?

Starting the college search is exciting but more than a little overwhelming. In 10th grade, we recommend keeping it casual with low-key college discovery. Parents can help by asking students about what they want out of life and listening with curiosity (without offering feedback or even bringing up the subject of college). Once students feel heard and understood, parents can build even more trust by talking about colleges only in terms of qualities—not names or rankings—that fit their child’s stated interests and goals (for example, living in a big city or by the beach, being a wealthy business mogul, going to lots of sporting events—whatever the case may be).

For students who are up for it, checking out nearby colleges or just grabbing a meal on campus can be a fun, low-pressure way to get a feel for their personal preferences: small or big school, campus vibe, etc. Fantasizing about where you might be able to spend your college years can be super motivating. Then, junior year, it’s time to start a preliminary list in earnest. With thousands of colleges in the US to choose from, it seems like a daunting undertaking, but with a good college search tool, you can quickly zero in on the schools that are the best fit for you. The government website College Navigator is a great resource. In the app, we use their data to predict students’ admission odds, check for financial fit, and rank college recommendations by graduation rate. Graduation rate is an essential part of our methodology for a couple of reasons. For one, college students typically withdraw due to a lack of financial aid or student support. In the US, this happens to a whopping 40% of college students. Since graduation rate is a statistic that can vary widely–even among schools of similar selectivity–we sort colleges by graduation rate so that students will have more positive college experiences with less debt.

Once you have a list of colleges that are a good fit, it’s time for the fun part—you can start looking into which schools are the most exciting based on their majors, virtual tours, websites, etc. Going into senior year, you'll want to narrow down this list to a manageable number of likely schools, matches, and reaches (see “How do I finalize my college list?”). But one of the most intimidating parts of the process will be over, congrats!