As the mom of a high school junior, we are embarking on that exciting, stressful, roller coaster phase of life that is the college search and application process. Except it looks a little different right now. Colleges aren’t giving in-person tours and some don’t even have all their students on campus. But the good and bad of being home and underemployed right now means that I’ve used my mad research skills to help my daughter build her college list.

If you are wondering how to make a college list when you can’t even visit schools, or maybe you are reading this at a time when colleges are open again but you still want to build a college list before taking tours to narrow your choices down — I’ve got you covered, whether you are a parent or a student.

I wanted to share some of the best resources we have found in creating a college list to help others struggling with the same challenge.

Four college students walking through hall seen from behind

Before you Build your College List

Before you even get started, there is so much to learn about the college application process and frankly, most high school guidance counselors don’t have the resources to hand hold parents and students through the search. If you are a student, this is all new to you and maybe all you know is what you have heard about how expensive college is and how hard it can be to get in to a “good” school. As a parent, what we think we know is terribly outdated and we need a serious gut check.

Unless you want to hire a college coach, these resources will give you the background info you need to approach the college application process realistically.

1. Getting In: A College Coach Conversation podcast

There are a number of college search podcasts out there and many are quite helpful. However, the best that I have found is Getting In: A College Coach Conversation. The mix of perspectives from former and current college admissions officers, college coaches who have worked with dozens or hundreds of families, and financial aid experts is excellent. If you go back and listen to a good bit of the back catalog, you will know practically everything you need to about tackling this process. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

2. Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions

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Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, by Jeffrey Selingo is a must-read for parents and students approaching the college application process. Selingo is an education reporter who spent years embedded in various college admissions offices to get a real behind the scenes look at shaping a college class. He breaks down “buyer” schools versus “seller” schools (aka highly-selective schools) and the differences in admission practices and “discounts” in the form of merit aid given as incentives by buyer schools to attract desirable students.

He also sheds light on the mysterious early decision process and how spots reserved for athletes and legacies can impact admission chances. Reading this book may make you frustrated with the whole college system, but it also makes you feel like you have been given the key to cracking a secret code.

3. The Price you Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make

In The Price you Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make, by Ron Lieber, helps pull back the curtain on the real cost of college — and how much it can vary. As Selingo talks about in his book, there is plenty of merit aid available, if you know where to look. This book will help you think through what is really worth the cost and build a financial plan for paying for school.

College just ahead billboard

How to Make a College List

Even if you can’t visit schools, there are a ton of resources out there to help you get a sense of the school’s academic offerings and campus life. It helps if you can start by thinking about where you (or your student) might want to be geographically, what majors or subject they want to study, school size, school location (urban, suburban, rural), and any extracurricular activities, clubs, or sports they are interested in.

Here’s where to start:

BigFuture College Board

If your student has taken the PSAT, SAT or AP test, they have an account on College Board. Navigate to the BigFuture College Search section of the website and select the academics, size, location, etc. that you are interested in to run a search query. Once you have a list, you can read through the descriptions, look at the application criteria to see average SAT or ACT scores, and save the colleges that sound interesting.

I highly recommend putting together a spreadsheet of your top choices so it is easier to skim down the list, compare stats, and track deadlines. Some categories you may want to include are: name, location, website, majors of interest, size, median SAT scores, acceptance rate, admissions website, application deadline, and ED/EA deadlines.

College Websites & Virtual Tours

After creating a first draft of your college list, it is helpful to start browsing through the college websites. Remember, you eventually want to whittle this list down to 7-15 schools so it is ok if some schools just don’t appeal to you. Start by looking at the admissions website and take one of the virtual campus tours that almost all schools are offering on-demand (and if not they typically have some videos you can watch).

Poke around to see what you can learn about campus life, check out the various academic majors and minors, and visit the department website for your intended major. This will help you learn more about the faculty, the potential research or hands on opportunities, and the coursework required for the major. If everything looks interesting, you will want to sign up for some virtual information sessions.

Virtual Information Sessions

Colleges have gotten very creative in replicating the college visit experience virtually. The first session should be the general information session with a college admissions officer. These are done in a webinar style, with an option to submit questions during and after the session. The best sessions are those that are co-hosted by active students and admissions officers. The students bring a different kind of energy and enthusiasm for their school.

Many schools are then offering second-level information sessions for specific majors or colleges within the university. Some also offer live campus tours led by students or question and answer sessions with students. Each of these provide a bit of unique insight into another slice of college life.

Fiske Guide to Colleges

Everything you will learn through the college website and information sessions is naturally going to be filtered to put the school in the best light. Sometimes you need to turn to third-party resources to get better insight into the school. The Fiske Guide to Colleges is curated with real opinions and gives a better big picture view of the school.

In addition to all the stats, the description provides more personal color and insight into the campus life. One of the features that I love is the section that shows comparable schools. It is sort of like the “people also shopped for” recommendations on websites.

College Confidential

While Fiske Guide is the curated description of a school, the College Confidential website is the raw info. Maybe you can’t believe everything you read, but you can join insightful discussions about the schools you are interested in and their admissions processes. There is a lot of discussion in these forums about chances of admission and people asking others to predict if they will get in given their stats. You will also find threads about early and regular decision results, and others about campus life.

Niche.com

Niche.com is the happy medium. It offers a school description, with an overall rating and breakdowns for academic, social life, dorms, food, etc. At a glance you can see acceptance rates, median scores, and a scatter chart showing admissions by GPA and SAT. In addition to that info, you can read real reviews from students.

CampusReel

You can find tons of student-filmed videos on YouTube giving campus tours and talking about student life. However, if you find that hard to navigate, CampusReel is totally dedicated to student-led campus tours and dorm tours. This is also another resource for searching for schools. Once you search for a school, you can easily watch all the videos available for that institution.

Social Media

Another way schools have gotten creative with their recruitment is on social media. Most colleges not only have a general college social media profile, but they also have specific admissions accounts. These feature student takeovers, admissions events, and an in-depth look at different academic programs. You will likely find the most options where students gather, especially Instagram.

There are also many Facebook groups for parents of prospective students such as Paying for College 101, Grown and Flown Parents, and College Bound – Parents Tips to start.

College Visits

Of course, once it is safe again we can start visiting college campuses. Even if group guided tours aren’t available, some offer self-guided applications or maps. Just check the website first to see if there are any restrictions or if you need to make an appointment or fill out a form when you arrive.

If you are planning college visits, see our guides planning a college trip to:

We also have some tips on planning a college tour road trip and things to know before applying to college.

Have you been through this process and have other resources or tips to share? Please leave a comment below.

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