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5 Biggest Mistakes Applicants Make When Putting Together Their College Lists

08/19/2013 12:05 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

Okay, you're a senior and getting ready to apply to colleges, but the question is... which colleges? Some students begin thinking about college as early as their freshman and sophomore years, but many students don't do anything about it until they're seniors. It's never too early OR too late to come up with a good college list.

Unless you're a glutton for punishment, you will probably apply to about 10 or 12 colleges. How are you going to come up with that list? Which colleges fit you as a person and a student? There are better and worse ways of deciding that. Here are the five biggest mistakes I see students make in choosing colleges, and a little advice about how to avoid them.

5 BIGGEST MISTAKES

1) Not Knowing Yourself

Students who pick colleges based only on what colleges offer, but not on what colleges best "fit" them, often end up disappointed. It's really important for you to know yourself and figure out what you need to thrive as an undergraduate college student.

The first thing to do in a college search is to answer the question, "Who am I?" by writing down as many adjectives as you can that describe you. Ask your parents to do the same. You can find a list of adjectives and phrases on a HuffPost blog I wrote called, "150 Great Words and Phrases to Use During the College Admissions Process."

Next, answer the following questions about what you need: What kind of college do I want to attend? Big, medium-sized or small? (This is important. Lots of students think they want to attend a large university for it's big-time sports and party atmosphere, when they would actually do much better at a smaller college with a tighter community, faculty access and a lot more support and personal attention.) Is it important for me to be in a particular kind of setting, e.g., in a city, college town or rural area? Do I want to be in an academically demanding environment or one that's laid-back? What kind of students do I want to be around? People like me or students from very diverse backgrounds, with starkly different personalities? Use my College Selection Questionnaire to sort out what you want.

2) Not doing research about colleges

Students who choose colleges only by name, location or because their best friend is going there, and don't look into what the colleges are all about, might find themselves let down after they start college. So how do you get quality information? First, there are excellent college guidebooks such as The Fiske Guide to Colleges, The Insider's Guide to the Colleges and Colleges That Change Lives that provide information from student perspectives. You can also talk to people you trust - parents, your counselor, teachers, and students from your high school who are now at different colleges - about what colleges they recommend and why. Attending various college fairs at which admissions representatives talk about their colleges is another good source.

And, of course, there are online resources such as the Internet college searches including CampusDiscovery, CollegeMapper, Collegedata and the College Board's Big Future College Search to help come up with a list. Be sure to check out what the respective GPA, test score and admittance stats are. Take a look at www.unigo.com and www.the collegeprowler.com, as well as college's respective websites. Finally, there is no better way of "getting" a college than actually visiting it first hand.

3) Being too scared to take a chance

Sometimes students underestimate their chances for college acceptance, particularly if they have a learning disability or face different challenges. Know that colleges are very sympathetic to students who have learning or other issues and because of them are often forgiving of less-than-stellar grades and test scores. Also, students who are gifted athletes and/or have special talents sometimes don't realize how interested colleges might be in them.

Be smart in putting together your college list by applying to an equal number of Reach, Good Chance and Pretty Sure Thing schools. School Naviance programs usually offer information about acceptance rates for students with different GPAs and test scores. A good college list includes a range of college choices, but everyone should end-up in a school that he or she really wants to attend.

Finally, some students are afraid to be away from friends, family or even their hometown. Know that most students go through some form of homesickness during their freshman year. The better you do your homework about colleges, the less chance you have of homesickness becoming an issue, because you will have hand-picked a college that fits you well.

4) Being unrealistic, arrogant or naive

Some students who have stellar academic records and strong test scores confine themselves to applying to a handful of the most selective colleges. They leave Good Chance and Pretty Sure Thing schools off their lists. This is a big mistake, a kind of admissions naiveté or even arrogance. There are plenty of documented cases where 4.5 GPA/2340 test score applicants are turned down by colleges. Colleges and universities are very idiosyncratic in terms of whom they choose. Therefore, it's really important that you select a series of schools that offer the characteristics you want, including some that may not be highly selective. One of the worst outcomes is to wind up not being accepted to any of the colleges you want because you chose only Reach schools. With careful planning and research, that doesn't have to happen.

5) Feeling Unmotivated, Ornery or Lazy

Applying to colleges these days is not easy. It takes a good deal of research to determine how your personal characteristics and individual colleges match. After you have a good college list, you need to spend time completing the applications in a way that maximizes your opportunities. Keep in mind that college applications that are "a little better and a little different" than the competition are the ones that usually end up being the most successful. Applying takes time, a lot of thought and effort, and you need to do that if you want to get into colleges you will love.

Finding colleges can seem kind of overwhelming, but those who really get into it often find that it's a lot of fun.