“Where are you applying to college?”

It’s a question you’ve probably been asked time and time again since the beginning of your junior year. In the coming months, you’ll sit down with your counselor to create your college list. Before that counselor meeting, you should do some thinking and research so you’re as prepared as possible.

Experienced counselors weigh in with their advice on what you should know before you put together your list of prospective colleges.

Area of Interest

While you don’t have to have your career path set or even your major selected, you should have a sense of what Anastasia Marcella, a counselor at South Brunswick High School in New Jersey, calls an “area of interest.” To figure this out, start by asking yourself what you like about high school, suggests Christopher Obenchain, a director of college counseling at The Downtown School in Washington. For many students, answering the question, “What are your favorite classes?” is easier than predicting, “What do I want to major in?” With the answer to that question, your counselor can help you build a college list that caters to your areas of interest.

Size and Location

Shirley Levin, a certified educational planner with College Unlimited, says, “Ideally, the student [has] developed preferences for factors such as size of undergraduate population, physical environment—urban, suburban, or rural—and distance from home” by college list–making time.

Beyond a sense of those criteria, Marcella wants to know why you’ve set those limitations. The reasoning can help your counselor get creative with schools that may not hit the exact criteria you listed but still work with your needs.

Think about other issues related to size and location. For instance, Marcella’s high school with 3,000 students is extremely diverse, including a large LGBTQ population. As a result, she says, a lot of the kids she sees “don’t want to go somewhere without a lot of diversity. It affects what schools and what areas of the country you are going to be applying to.”

Obenchain said class size is another key factor to consider. How do you learn best? If you need to “talk it out,” he advises that you’ll probably be better off at schools that offer smaller classes. But if you prefer to do the reading on your own and then follow up during the lecture, you’ll likely do well at schools with larger class sizes.


It’s important to have a sense of how you’re going to pay for college and what you can afford before making your college list. Unfortunately, students often come to this meeting without this knowledge. “Parents don’t [always] want to share money information with kids for a number of reasons,” Obenchain explains, and students don’t always feel comfortable asking. It’s important that you have this discussion about finances with your parents before you meet with your high school counselor.

At this point in the process, you don’t need to cross high-sticker-price schools off your list even if you already know what you can afford. You still have the entire financial aid application process ahead of you, and some schools have more aid to give than others. The financial information you bring to this meeting will help your counselor include schools on your list with a range of tuition prices and where there’s a reasonable expectation you’ll receive financial aid.

Other Special Concerns

Come prepared to discuss any other academic or personal concerns that your counselor should take into consideration. For example, Obenchain listed things like a learning difference, a disability, interest in athletics or even an upcoming divorce between your parents is helpful for a counselor to know about. Additionally, Levin explained that when counselors are also aware of your personal goals—such as recreational musical theater—they can provide detailed information about schools with these opportunities.

Gather your thoughts and this information, along with any forms your counselor requests, and head into your meeting with an open mind. Share your perspective with your counselor, listen to their expert insights, and together, you’ll create a list of schools that is tailored to you.

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