The Target College List: Researching Schools & Financial Aid

Chase Yano
December 28, 2023
College List

As college applications approach, it is important to take the time to make a college list. With a college list, you will be able to have a feasible goal to hold yourself accountable as you balance the piles of supplemental essays with making the most of your senior year. More importantly, making a college list entails a much more important aspect of the college process: research! The place you will be spending the next few years is a big deal, and you want to make sure where you attend is a good fit. Let’s talk about some of the main factors that you should use to guide you in making this college list.

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How to Pick Schools for Your College List

And more importantly, how to decide where you want to go to college:

Choose Your Major (Academics) and Research How to Apply for Specific Majors

While it is perfectly alright to enter a college without a definite major, it is very beneficial to have a loose idea of which “school” of a university you’d like to attend. A university is simply a group of schools that each specialize in something. For example, the undergraduate section of Columbia University comprises Columbia College and The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. When you apply to Columbia, you have to select which school you are applying to. If you apply to the Engineering school (commonly referred to as SEAS), you can only major in the majors offered at that school. Therefore, you would not have the option to major in English, for instance, without internally transferring schools to Columbia College. However, this situation is not the case at all universities. For example, at Stanford, you are free to major in whatever you want, and you are not locked into a specific school while applying. If you apply to a non-university, such as a liberal arts college like Bowdoin or a technical institute like MIT, it is a single school. So, as long as they offer the majors you may pursue, then you’re set.

If you are undecided on your major you can still apply for college

If you do have a major (or majors) in mind you want to pursue, then it is time to research. To find the best schools for your major, merely Googling “best schools for [x] major” won’t give you optimal responses. Often, you will receive lists of graduate school rankings that aren’t indicative of undergraduate program strengths. My process for finding suitable schools for my major is to find a ranking that is specifically for undergraduate programs (like Niche) and to make a list of the schools that look good upon a brief overview. If you see a school that doesn’t have a great ranking for your major, add it anyway if other aspects are appealing. We’ll do some deeper research later and, of course, ranking isn’t everything. 

If you don’t have a major, either just pick schools based on overall ranking, or, better, narrow down your choices to a handful of majors that you think you might like, and pick schools based on what fulfills each of them, so that you can leave your options open.

Research Colleges Based on Financial Aid

A classmate of mine had a dream school which they had their heart set on all through high school. Once senior year came, they applied to that selective school and they received a well-deserved acceptance letter. However, in addition to this acceptance came their financial aid package, which revealed a horrifying sight for this student, a recipient of free high school lunches: a $35,000 annual price tag that prevented them from attending (curse you, NYU!).  Needless to say, it is vital to ensure that the schools on your list offer enough financial aid for them to be affordable for you, unless you’d like to experience this intense disappointment. Once I find a well-ranked school for my major, I immediately look at its financial aid policies. I do this by checking one of the many online lists of full need-based financial aid schools to see if it is there. If not, I will still check to see if the list is missing it by Googling “[school name] financial aid policies” and reviewing the school’s specific procedures. If it doesn’t have full need-based financial aid, it likely is not worth considering.

Net Price Calculators for Estimating Financial Aid

Even if a school does have full need-based financial aid, note that schools have their own ways of calculating your “need.” Typically, the better a school is, the more “need” they’ll assign to you. Therefore, it is necessary to use each school’s Net Price Calculator (NPC) before adding it to your list. Virtually every school has an NPC, which asks you for the same information that is present on your FAFSA. Most utilize CollegeBoard’s NPC, so once you complete that once, you will be able to check the net price of multiple schools quickly. For the net price calculator, you likely just need your parents’ 1040 federal income tax returns from the last year or two. However, for your actual financial applications, you will also need their W-2s from the prior and prior-prior years.

Calculate How to Afford College Applications

When you are making your college list, you need to account for how much your applications will cost. On average, application fees range from $40 to $90, with public schools being on the cheaper end and private schools on the more expensive end. This is a scam. However, it is a scam that we must fall for, since we have no other choice. It may seem ridiculous, but it is worth making the investment of hundreds of dollars of application fees in order to give yourself a better chance at getting into a school that gives you the best opportunity to succeed in and enjoy your future. However, this is obviously not affordable to many people no matter their ambition, but there are a few options!

Will Schools Waive the Application Fee?

How can you avoid costly application fees or have some of the college application fees waived altogether? One valuable option is utilizing fee waivers, either through the Common App or through a school’s specific form. If any of the following indicators fit you, you will qualify for a fee waiver which will make any of the applications you submit through the Common App (which will be most if not all of your applications) completely free! Read each of the factors below carefully because there are tons of ways to qualify to submit college applications for free for schools that use the Common App.

Factors for waiving the college application fees for the Common App:

If any of the following apply to you than you can qualify for a fee waiver for the Common Application

To obtain a Common App fee waiver, follow these steps.

Some schools have fee waivers that you can fill out that have similar requirements that will make their applications free. Even better, some schools, such as Carleton College, simply don’t have an application fee, so these schools should be sought out and definitely considered for any frugal applicant’s list!

After this application robbery, you will also have to pay another toll: the dreaded CSS Profile fees. For your first application, you will pay $25, and then $16 for each additional school you send a CSS profile to.

Researching Tough Colleges: Better Schools & Competitive Programs

If the school is both decently ranked for your major (or overall) and offers full need-based financial aid, it is time to dig a little deeper before adding it to your college list.

First, you should scour the school’s website to see what information they offer about your major (if you had one) and about the school in general. After gathering surface-level information from the school website, I’d take to finding student opinions. If I had a major in mind, the first thing I’ll Google is “[school] [major] reddit”. For example, if I wanted to know about Cornell’s computer science program, I would search “cornell computer science reddit.” 9 times out of 10, several Reddit forum posts of people giving their personal experiences will pop up. Keep in mind while reading these posts that negative words on the internet are not fact. Just because one person condemns a specific school doesn’t mean you should believe them. Using Reddit in this manner is simply a way to gather more information about a school.

You should also use Reddit to find out more things about a school. For example, if you were curious about the student body culture at UChicago, Google “uchicago culture reddit.” Again, you will have access to a bunch of people describing their school firsthand. 

Once you find schools that pass a financial aid check and that have a culture and educational opportunities that are satisfactory, go ahead and put them on your college list.

Repeat this process eight to 12 times, and you should have a great college list underway! If you need more help making your college list, request a meeting with a tutor at Dewey Smart!

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