How to build your perfect college list, according to a Stanford-educated admissions expert

Stanford University
Beck Diefenbach | Reuters
Stanford University

When Danny Ruderman was in high school, he didn't know where to start his college search.

"I went to a public high school in Southern California that sent 17 percent of students to college," he says. "My principal didn't think I would ever get into Stanford because the academic reputation of my school was so poor. I applied and got in anyway."

While he loved Stanford, Ruderman says he wishes that he had considered other colleges. "The only thing I think I would do differently was not the application itself, it would be to also look at other schools with programs that I know now," he says. " For example, USC Film School is amazing! At Colorado College, you can take one class at a time."

Students passing by Stanford Memorial Church on the Stanford campus.
Connie J. Spinardi | Getty Images
Students passing by Stanford Memorial Church on the Stanford campus.

"There's really cool programs that I had no idea about because all I was doing was trying to get into the best school in California," says Ruderman. "I got lucky, I loved it, but I might have made maybe a different choice, had I known all the options."

Today, Ruderman works as a college admissions expert and helps students find and get into the perfect school for them. "I don't care about the name of a school. For me, it's all about finding match," he says.

In order to make the perfect college list, Ruderman recommends that students take a thoughtful approach. "A combination of reading, seeing campuses and doing research will really start to clarify what a student might want or might not want," he says.

Here are the three ways to make a college list that's perfect, for you:

1. Read broadly

Everyone's college search should start at the bookstore, says Ruderman.

"You can pick up a guidebook like the Fiske Guide to Colleges and that has 400 schools or so, not 4,000 schools, but 400 schools or so with three pages of what its like to go to that school," he explains.

Books like these can help students answer important questions like "What do kids do on the weekends? What are the best academic programs? What are the sports like?" says Ruderman. "You just get a general gist, a feel of what's out there."

Pomona College
Ted Soqui | Corbis | Getty Images
Pomona College

2. Visit a range of schools

"I also advocate students going to see campuses," says Ruderman. Even though this can be an expensive endeavor, he says that visiting a variety of campuses nearby is a cost-effective way to learn about what type of school is right for you.

"My family couldn't have afforded for me to fly all over the place," he admits. "But I still could have seen, say, UCLA, which is a big public school, I could have seen Pomona, which is a small private school, and I could have seen Chapman, which is a medium-sized private."

This approach helps students understand what kind of college they are looking for. "You can see different types of schools to get a sense of what those types are. What are small liberal arts colleges is versus a gigantic 'rah rah' sports school,'" he says. "Then of course, if they can see individual schools, that would be great, too."

3. Research the details

"The third and probably most important thing that students do not do, is they really should go on the school's websites themselves and spend some significant time looking at the programs," says Ruderman.

He advises that students research what a school's best programs are, what majors they offer and what research opportunities they provide.

Ruderman hopes that by doing thorough research, young people can make a better-informed college decision than he did.

"If you read and spend time looking at what's available, you're going to start to discern at 17, 'Oh I didn't even know this was available,' or 'Huh, this program looks like it's a lot more up my alley for what I want to do,'" he says.

When you know the answers to these questions, you have a better chance at getting the most out of your college experience.

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