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Creating A College List Is All About Balance

Allyson Manchester
If you are going to be a high school senior in the fall, now is the ideal time to create your college list. As you embark upon the quest to “find your fit” this year, I would suggest looking back to the ancient Greeks for a bit of inspiration.

Marcus Aurelius, one of the major Stoic philosophers, wrote “The Meditations” in the middle of the Antonine plague (166 to 180 CE). In the book, he shares advice for living and coping that feels directly relevant to the exciting yet uncertain task of applying to college in the middle of a pandemic. Other Stoics, such as Seneca and Epictetus, also have helpful wisdom to offer.
In short, the original Stoics are the guidance counselors we all need in 2020. In “Discourses” Epictetus writes, “You must remember this—that if you hold anything dear outside of your own reasoned choice, you will have destroyed your capacity for choice.” Here, the wise philosopher warns against “attachment,” or becoming too wedded to our hopes for the future. If we get too attached, we risk getting totally crushed when our carefully crafted vision fails to manifest for reasons beyond our control. Instead, we should keep ourselves open and ready to face a variety of outcomes.
As you build your college list for 2020-2021, I urge you to channel your inner Stoic and resist attachment to any one college or type of college. This year it will be more important than ever to explore and pursue a diverse range of postgraduate options, as opposed to investing all of your emotional energy into one “dream school.” With higher education, the economy, and public health in a state of flux, you must be ready to accommodate many potential “futures” and create a balanced college list that reflects an adaptable, non-attached mindset.

The goal of balance in a college list is not new. Up until now, most people have aimed for balance in terms of selectivity. You probably already know that your list (usually seven to 10 schools in total) should be a strategic mix of “reach,” “target” and “likely” options. Generally speaking, you can determine whether a school is a reach, target or likely by comparing your GPA and standardized test scores to the average GPA and scores of the college’s accepted applicants from the previous year (you can usually find these data in the admission section of college websites). You should also look at the college’s acceptance rate. If the college reports a low acceptance rate (below 30 percent), it is usually an automatic “reach” for most students, even those who have high grades and scores. In the time of COVID-19, it’s no secret that colleges will experience new enrollment challenges. Some sources predict that these challenges will lead to slightly increased admissions odds for the Class of 2021. Still, for the purposes of making your list, you should expect that competitive colleges will remain competitive.

Balancing your list with reach, possible, and likely schools will prepare you for a variety of admissions outcomes. This year, however, I would also emphasize balance in two other key areas: geography and cost.
In the past, I have been fully supportive (and envious!) of students who knew that they wanted to pack their bags and jet-set to colleges in faraway lands. I have worked with students who limited their college applications to the West Coast, the United Kingdom, or Canada. This fall I will be encouraging students, even the adventurous types, to apply to at least one or two in-state colleges. At this point, it’s just too early to tell if extended travel will be advisable in fall 2021. I hope that a vaccine will make travel safe and appealing once again. This, however, could take time. If you have aspirations to travel but need to attend college close to home next year, do not dismay. I am willing to bet that a nearby college will still offer you an entire universe of new and interesting professors, classmates, and knowledge.

The third and final type of balance that you should achieve on your 2020-21 college list is financial balance. While your family might have been able to stretch financially last year, the circumstances this year or next year could change things. The question of “How can I make my undergraduate degree more affordable?” is one we should have been asking ourselves all along. In the past, however, the cultural cachet of college distracted many students from the reality of tuition costs, making outrageous student loans seem justifiable. I hope the present uncertainty in our economy will, at the very least, demand us to become more savvy college consumers.

Finding “affordable” colleges for your list will require some digging. That is because the sticker price (the total cost of attendance that the college lists on its website) is often much different from the net price, or the price that your family will pay after the mystical calculus of financial aid shakes out. Each college uses different factors for determining net price, and every college has a different amount of money to give.

If you would like to get a sense of which colleges are likely to offer your family a good net price, I would recommend using the Quick College Cost Estimator on This nifty tool will ask you a few short questions about your grades and family situation. It will then give you estimated net prices for a range of colleges: competitive and less competitive, public and private. If you have some time on your hands and would like to get even more accurate estimates, you can use the net price calculators on individual college websites.

In any case, it’s also prudent to consider colleges that have lower sticker prices to begin with: in-state public universities and community colleges. If you live on Cape Cod, you are lucky to have access to the high-quality UMass system, state colleges and universities, and Cape Cod Community College.

So, like a good Stoic-in-training, do your best to create a college list that will offer solid options in a range of scenarios. Do not grow too attached to one plan or vision for the future. Instead, carefully establish balance in three key areas: selectivity, geography, and cost. Do this, and your list will be bulletproof.
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