Today is a big day in the college admissions world – it’s Ivy release day. If you are a high school sophomore or junior, or the parent of one, you are likely paying great attention to the results. Getting into the optimal college requires starting early, and creating the perfect college list is one of the most important things that you can do. Here are some tips to help you get it right:

  • Do not rely on Naviance.

Naviance is an online tool used by most public high schools. If you aren’t already familiar with Naviance (or your school’s platform) I discourage you from getting too focused on it. Essentially, Naviance inputs your grades and test scores, and then compares your profile to students from the same high school. You can see admissions results for the past several years, displayed in a scattergram that helps you guess how you will fare if you apply to a given school.

I use the word “guess” deliberately, because although there is some utility in looking at these graphs, it is hard to extrapolate too much. This is because Naviance does not capture truly crucial information, like whether the previous applicants took honors courses, were active outside of class, had disciplinary issues, asked for financial aid, were legacies, recruited athletes, diverse, etc. Furthermore, the information in Naviance is often self-reported by students, so may or may not be entirely accurate.


  • Do not rely (solely) on your guidance counselor.

While guidance counselors can be helpful resources, it is extremely important to do outside research before settling on a college list. Although some guidance counselors have broad knowledge of different schools and nuanced expertise about what makes you a strong candidate, many do not. In these cases the list that they generate is likely to be too narrow – based on your numbers, which are really not the best predictor of fit or even admission.

Furthermore, guidance counselors tend to recommend the same schools over and over again, leading to a glut of applicants from the same high school. Since most colleges want to diversify their class they are unlikely to admit 15 kids from the same school. Also, enlisting outside help or conducting thorough research can help you find schools where you are a strong cultural fit, and may bring geographic diversity or other elements that schools are looking for.


  • Visit a range of schools.

Please start looking at schools really early, even freshman or sophomore year. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but if you find yourself near a college consider checking it out. In this initial phase, please look at a wide variety of programs – big, small, urban, rural, more or less academically rigorous. The idea is to get a feel for the range of options.


  • Allow your choices to evolve.

It is totally normal to love a school that you visit early on, and then to realize that your priorities have changed, and that something like class size or on-campus housing is important, altering your target list. Your academic and extracurricular interests might also evolve, so give yourself permission to expand and contract your list.


  • Make sure to apply to some early action schools.

This is really important advice, and all of my clients submit at least a few applications early. If you don’t have an early decision target (one that you are ready to commit to, if they admit you) you should still apply to some early action programs. This means that you (hopefully!) have peace of mind early in senior year that you are into at least one great option, and also allows you to focus on regular decision applications to your other target schools. By the way, it really is true that early applicants have an advantage, and you don’t want to miss out on that benefit.


Crafting the perfect school list is an art as well as a science, and one my favorite parts of working with clients. It’s truly exciting to help students envision their future at a variety of schools, including some that they may not have considered. Best of luck to everyone who is waiting for results, and to those of you who are starting the school search!

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Karen Marks

Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Clients have been awarded more than $70 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 98% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.
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