Asset 1ScholarMatch

Training Module 3

College Landscape and List Building

The College Landscape

One of the most important milestones our students work on is building their college list. Before you delve into building a college list with your student, we’d like you to review this list of Essential College Terminology (if you aren’t familiar with these terms already) to understand some foundations of admission cycles, application portals, and scholarship partnerships that affect all students, regardless of where they apply.

Next, please review the following for a high-level overview of the college landscape. In addition to systems of public universities nationwide, each of which often have their own distinct requirements and application portals, the following are some types of colleges you will encounter.

Types of Colleges

Liberal Arts and Science Colleges

  • These colleges aim to impart general knowledge to help students develop strong critical thinking skills.
  • There is a stronger emphasis on the interaction between professors and students and receiving more individualized attention.
  • The table below illustrates different kinds of unique curricula that are found at various liberal arts institutions:


One Class at a Time Student completes one course per quarter or semester. Colorado College, Cornell College, Quest University
“Great Books” Program Students are required to read books that are considered to be essential foundations to Western Culture Literature, while encouraging open discussion Saint Mary’s College of CA; St. John’s College
“Jan- Term” Students can study abroad, intern, or take a fun academic class during the month of January Middlebury College; Bennington College; Eckerd College
Social Justice Focus Students learn about social diversity and social inequities University of San Francisco; Seattle University

Minority Serving Institutions

  • These colleges are institutions with higher percentages of students and professors of one minority, including Native American, African American (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Latinx or Asian identifying individuals.
  • A student does not have to be a minority to attend these colleges.
  • Examples include Howard University, Fisk University, Northeastern Illinois University, Shaw University, UC Riverside.

Single-Sex Colleges

  • These are institutions which enroll only men or only women applicants.
  • These institutions often offer excellent mentoring opportunities for students.
  • Examples include Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Simmons College, and Mount Holyoke College.

Religious Colleges and Universities

  • All religious colleges and universities are private institutions that receive no public funding.
  • Different strains of religious colleges exist and they vary widely with expectations of religious practice. Some are extremely strict, mandating students attend church, take a Christian theology class, etc., whereas others are religious in the global sense, asking students to take religious classes to examine how religion and history/politics/economics are intertwined. Helping students research student life at schools will give a sense of where the school falls on the spectrum.
  • Examples include Boston College, University of Notre Dame, and DePaul University.



Building the College List

As our previous module covered, research has shown that over 50% of high-achieving, low and moderate-income students do not apply to a single top college that matches their academic qualifications. However, for such students who do apply to top colleges, research also suggests that these students go on to matriculate, graduate, and succeed at similar rates compared to their higher-income peers. Thus, in order for our students to ultimately attend the best school for them with regard to academic, social, and financial fit, it’s critically important to focus on applying to a balanced list of colleges.

During this process, some students may have strong preferences and may be very firm in their desire to apply to certain schools, while other students will be more open and flexible. In whichever case, our focus is to ensure that students are researching schools that will be strong options for them, including schools they’ve never heard of!

The process of building a college list happens over a period of time, and you as a College Coach will play an integral role in supporting students during this journey. It’s good to be mindful that this process may feel overwhelming for students—if this is the case, we’ve found that researching just one or two schools at a time and gently grounding the process in the ultimate goal of finding the best-fit college for them, are useful strategies. It is also important to be culturally responsive—some students may hesitate about certain schools due to cultural and family norms and traditions. For example, even some predominantly-white institutions (PWIs) with excellent statistics on indicators of student support quality (like overall high retention and graduation rates) will not necessarily represent the best options in terms of fit for some students of color.

Match & Fit

Thinking about College MATCH

One of our goals is to ensure students apply to a range of colleges that match their academic profile in different ways. A student’s academic profile includes their GPA (cumulative unweighted and weighted), test scores, and range of high school coursework. We recommend students request a copy of their academic transcript and review for it accuracy with their coach. It is important that they have a clear understanding of their academic profile before applying to colleges.

On each college list, students need Reach, Target, and Likely colleges. We ask that students begin their list with 12-15 schools and narrow it down to 8-10 at the end of the process. Of course, this number will vary from student to student, but our aim is that students condense the list once they have a clearer understanding of their own interests and desires.

Students who are part of the College Point Program are asked to include College Point schools as part of their list. CollegePoint Schools are the four-year colleges and universities in the United States with the highest graduation rates (70% or higher). They represent a diverse range of geographies and institution types and include safety, match, and reach options for all CollegePoint students. There are many great, affordable schools on this list that we encourage CollegePoint students to explore.


What does it mean? A REACH college is a difficult college to gain admission to. Even if a student has a 4.0 cumulative GPA and solid test scores, colleges like Stanford, Harvard, and Yale are REACH colleges because they admit less than 20% of their applicants. A TARGET college is where a student will probably gain admission if he or she fits the college’s admission academic profile by falling within the middle 50% of GPA & test scores. A LIKELY college is where a student knows he or she will gain admission. The student falls above the college’s middle 50% of GPA & test scores.
How many to apply to? 3 3-4 2-3


Thinking about College FIT

In addition to matching colleges with the academic profile of students, it is also important to think about students’ personal preference. We want students to be able to see themselves at this school to ensure that they are ultimately happy and able to persist at a school that is a good fit for them!

“Fit” factors include the following:

  • Environment
  • Size
  • Diversity
  • Location
  • Cost
  • Academic rigor
  • Type of College
  • Student body
  • Activities
  • Academic programs
  • Family
  • Social, emotional, and academic support programs

This is also where understanding the difference in student experience between attending a large, public state university as opposed to a small, private liberal arts college comes into play. Does the student want to be a part of a “tight-knit” community, or are they open to meeting new people all the time?  Will this school challenge and support the student academically? Will this school provide support in their development in the classroom and beyond?

In discerning college “fit,” we often encourage coaches and students to research schools by doing the following:

  • Watch college admissions videos to get an interactive feel for the campus environment.
  • Use the ScholarMatcher, our search tool designed specifically for low-income students, to generate a starting list of schools that may be previously unknown to students.
  • Review the College Point Schools list.
  • Research schools using Big Future along with our College Research Worksheet to provide depth and context to colleges that may at first appear interchangeable.
  • College Greenlight is another great search tool that has resources specifically for first-generation, low-income students of color. Students create a profile and can search for schools and scholarships by category.


Match & Fit Continued

Financial Fit

In addition to building a balanced list that takes into consideration Match and Fit, it is just as equally important for students to include schools that maximize students’ financial affordability. The goal is for students to include schools that will meet at least 80% of their demonstrated need or more while having a clear understanding of their parents’ expected family contribution and income.  

In discerning “financial fit,” we encourage students to review and understand the following information in preparation for their search:

    • Use the Fafsa4caster to determine the student’s federal financial aid eligibility and an estimate of their expected family contribution. 
    • Use the College Scorecard breakdown of net price by different family income brackets (click “Costs” on each school’s College Scorecard profile to view this breakdown).
    • Second, compare the net price of each college in comparison to the financial resources. The net price is the amount that a student pays to attend an institution in a single academic year AFTER subtracting scholarships and grants the student receives. Scholarships and grants are forms of financial aid that a student does not have to pay back.
    • Review the list of 100% Need Met Colleges. This is a great way to see which schools cover 100% of students’ demonstrated need.
    • Encourage students to have a conversation with their parents about their income. We understand that this may be uncomfortable and outright scary for some of our students, so we encourage Coaches to approach this topic gently.

Undocumented Students

ScholarMatch aims is to support all students to pursue and complete their education, regardless of their immigration status. Below are resources that provide more information about immigration advocacy work, as well as ways to contribute to your knowledge and continuous learning regarding this particular demographic of students.

  • Take a look this wonderful curated resource from United We Dream DEEP. It has well over 15 pages and links to information about Immigrant-Led Organizations, resource guides, scholarships, graduate school, research, and much more. This is a great resource to share with students and allies.
  • ULead Map provides information about each state’s financial aid policy towards undocumented students. Not all states offer state financial aid to students, so doing a quick review of this information is useful.
  • The mission of Immigrants Rising is to empower undocumented, young people to achieve educational and career goals through personal, institutional and policy transformation. Their website has information regarding financial support, legal advice, leadership opportunities, and much more.
  • Read the Top 10 ways to be support undocumented students to become familiar with how to be an ally for this student demographic.
  • Read The New York Times article by Erica Green, For Immigrant Students, a New Worry: A Call to ICE.

Balanced list criteria

As mentioned earlier, we want students to apply to a mix of schools that take into consideration their match and fit, as well as target, likely, and reach schools. Below we have provided two sample college lists: a first college list draft and a second draft with recommended revisions.

Sample College List

Below is a student profile and their initial college list.


Student Profile College List
  • GPA: 4.3
  • ACT 30/SAT 1350
  • Major: Political Science
  • Home State: Georgia
  • Student has indicated they want to attend out-of-state schools
  • Likes large schools, with active student body
  • University of Georgia
  • Auburn University
  • Samford University
  • University of Alabama
  • The University of Tennessee at Knoxville
  • Duke University
  • Purdue University Main Campus
  • University of Kentucky Honors
  • UNC Chapel Hill

This sample list is very heavy with target schools. You will want to do more research on each school to ensure they are a good fit for your student. For a deeper dive, ask the student what kind of research they have done so far – perhaps they know someone that attends one of these schools, or they have personal reasons for choosing these particular institutions. Because this list includes many public, out-of-state-schools, the student will not receive in-state tuition.

Revised List

We recommend the following talking points with your student as you recommend modifying the college list:

  • There is a financial risk in only applying to out-of-state schools, so we always recommend including schools that are likely to meet your financial need.
  • Add around 2-3 target and reach schools. Given the student’s strong academic record, they will be a great candidate for many selective schools.

Below is a recommended list that takes into consideration the student’s desire to apply to out-of-state schools, as well as schools that meet 80% of financial need and are a good fit for the student.


Original List   Revised List
  • University of Georgia
  • Auburn University
  • Samford University
  • University of Alabama
  • The University of Tennessee at Knoxville
  • Duke University
  • Purdue University Main Campus
  • University of Kentucky Honors
  • UNC Chapel Hill
  • University of Georgia
  • Samford University
  • Duke University
  • University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
  • George Washington University
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • Northwestern University
  • University of Miami
  • University of Virginia


College List Review Criteria

When you are reviewing a student’s college list, it is important to consider and ask the following: 

  • Is this a balanced list? What criteria does it meet?
  • Does the list incorporate a student’s “fit” criteria?
  • Is there a mix of reach, target, and likely schools?
  • Does the student have financial target schools?
  • Which schools would you recommend adding or removing?

List Feedback and Tips

As you provide feedback and recommendations on your student’s college list, it is important that you be thoughtful in your recommendations. Creating a college list is very personal, and we want students to be heard and feel that they are owning this process.

We recommend the following:

  • Ask questions before recommending changes
  • Create a shared spreadsheet (feel free to use our college application tracker!) to share with your student
  • Keep it conversational and light

Mastery Assignment Part 1

Short Answers Based on Sample List Assignment

1. Review the following worksheets:

2. Once you have reviewed these sheets, you will answer the following questions in the mastery assignment submission form:

  • As a Coach, you will provide feedback on your student’s college list. What further questions would you ask this student in order to help them refine their list?
  • Based on the sample student profile and fit criteria, do you have any recommendations for schools that the student should add to achieve a more balanced list? Why is each school a good fit?

Mastery Assignment Part 2

College Research Worksheet

The purpose of the following exercise is to not only practice navigating these online tools, but to also draw your attention to the importance and difficulty of finding what is unique about individual colleges.

1. Find the profile of the college you attended on both the ScholarMatcher and Big Future to complete our College Research Worksheet. If you’re unable to make a copy of the College Research Worksheet, you can download a .doc file here

If your school is not listed on the ScholarMatcher, please use the profile for The University of San Francisco to answer ScholarMatcher related questions. You may also use your college’s website and your own first-hand knowledge to develop your answers.

Mastery Assignment Part 3

Short Answer Questions

Finally, you will be asked to answer the following questions in short answer format. The questions will cover topics like essential college terminology and those covered in the Match & Fit sections, as well as the Undocumented Students section of this module. 

  • What is the difference between Early Decision and Early Action applications?
  • What are two tools you can use to help your students check colleges on their list for financial fit?
  • According to the ULEAD National Map, what can you tell us about policies for undocumented or DACA students in the state where you reside?

Module 3 Assignment

To finish this training module, please complete the mastery assignment linked below.



Once you have finished, you can access Training Module 4 here.