How to Build A College List: What Experts Recommend

Are you a parent, mentor or other adult seeking to help guide a high school junior (or someone younger) through the early steps of the college process?

Here are steps teens can take to build a college list. (Syracuse University, Twenty20 @pprevost)

How teens can build their college list

We were live on the Grown & Flown Facebook Page  with a one-hour question-and-answer session focused on “The College Search: Building a College List.” You can watch it here:

In doing so, we drew on content from The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education, a book that we co-authored and that was published by Viking. We brought to that project, as we do to Grown & Flown, decades of combined experience and expertise from various vantage points in the world of college access.

In our session, we described the scaffolding for the college search that we construct in-depth in the book. In particular, we discussed “The Four C’s” — four prompts or yardsticks for young people (and the adults who may be helping guide them) to bear in mind as they take the measure of various colleges and universities. They are:

Four characteristics of colleges to consider when building a list


What is the history and mission of the institution? How does that mission resonate with your child, as a potential applicant, today? How does it manifest itself on campus today?


Beyond a mere listing of majors and programs that a school offers, or even whether certain courses are required, what is the design and aim of the courses that your child might take over four years?


Who are the people who make up the campus, and what are the physical spaces that they occupy? What do they value? How diverse, inclusive and supportive is the community? 


What are some of the outcomes (such as readiness for graduate school admission or career opportunities) that your child might envision at the end of their college experience?

While these categories and definitions might work well as a starting point, we encourage you and your child to tailor them to your child’s specific needs. Once you’ve done so, they might then serve as a road map to inform every stage of your teen’s research of colleges and universities — whether on the most cursory visit online or, as the pandemic recedes and allows, an in-person, walking tour of campus.

One additional category

One alert about those categories: there is, of course, a critically important fifth C, cost, which we consider in-depth in the book.

Using a spreadsheet, Google Doc or legal pad — whatever is most comfortable — have a look at a couple of websites of particular colleges, and begin to record a few rough notes on what you learn, using the C’s as a guide.

We look forward to seeing you soon.

About the Authors

Eric J. Furda is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the former Executive Director of Admissions at Columbia University. He joined the college counseling staff at a secondary school in Philadelphia earlier this year. Jacques Steinberg is a former national education correspondent at The New York Times, where he worked as a journalist for a quarter-century, and the author of The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, a New York Times best-seller.

Adapted from The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education by Eric J. Furda and Jacques Steinberg, published in September 2020 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Eric J. Furda and Jacques Steinberg.

About Jacques Steinberg

Jacques Steinberg is the New York Times bestselling author of The Gatekeepers and You Are an Ironman, and is a former New York Times education journalist. He has served as a senior executive at Say Yes to Education and is on the board of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. He appears periodically as a college admissions expert on Grown & Flown.

Read more posts by Jacques

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