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Applying to college is a matchmaking process and should be taken seriously by students and their families. Unfortunately, many students do not invest the time and energy into doing the necessary research required to make a compatible college list.

With over 3,500 universities in the US alone, the options are overwhelming. Students should approach the task of creating their college list based on the philosophy of finding the proper “fit.”

Each student is unique, as is each university. There is an over-reliance on rankings and emphasis on a university’s reputation, which should be factored into the college selection process, but not drive it.

The multiple personal factors that make you unique as an individual - not just your academic goals - should be taken into consideration when making what is probably the most important decision of your young adult life. 

Where to start?

I advise students to apply to between eight and twelve colleges. Students must keep in mind that their college lists must be realistic. While they may aspire to graduate from Harvard or MIT, they have to honestly assess their chances of admission. All American colleges release admissions statistics and publish their acceptance rates, GPA’s, and SAT scores for admitted students. Universities will release the 25th and 75th percentiles for SATs of admitted incoming freshmen, which is an easy way for aspiring applicants to see how they compare to students that have actually been admitted.

If your SAT scores are not within the middle 50th percentile of accepted students, you will have a very difficult time of being accepted. Each student has to take an objective view of their academic record - primarily their grades and standardised test scores - and see how it compares to those of admitted students.

The colleges on your list should fall into three distinct categories of schools: high chance of admission, moderate chance of admission, and low chance of admission. Ideally, you would like to have at least four admissions offers from which to choose in the spring time.

Regardless of the strength of your academic record, schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford will always be low chance of admission schools for almost every applicant.

Harvard rejects more high school valedictorians than it has places for freshmen class every year. Strategies such as applying to every school in the Ivy League are not only time consuming, but counter-productive. Your college list should be a reflection of your values and goals, as well as your personality. 

Choosing the right school

There are numerous factors to take into consideration when creating your college list. Here are the top ones: 


American universities can range from a few hundred students per class to tens of thousands of students per class. Arizona State University in the US has over 70,000 students. Students enrolled in large public universities, such as University of Texas, Austin and UCLA, have access to seemingly limitless facilities, but may not be right for every student.

The larger the university, the larger the average class size will be. Imagine being enrolled in a basic Microeconomics course with 800 other students. The professor will give the lectures, but will not likely know your name. Most of your tuition will actually be done by Teaching Assistants, who are graduate students pursuing advanced degrees at the university, through weekly sections of approximately 25 students.

Students at larger universities typically receive less personalized support and attention from the university itself than from smaller institutions. I tend to guide my students towards smaller schools, where they benefit from smaller class sizes, as well as a more intimate learning experience. Studying abroad and living away thousands of miles from your family can be very stressful and overwhelming for even the most well-travelled and prepared students. 


Geography is an extremely important factor that most students do not take into consideration. You should ask yourself if you want to study in a city or near a city or in a suburban campus. How close is the campus to an international airport? What is the area like around the campus? What type of neighborhood is the college located in?

Weather is also very important. A student raised in Dubai may not want to spend six months of the year in a New England winter. A student intent on studying marine biology may want to enroll in a university located on the water, in a coastal city, in order to carry out field research. Cornell University, an Ivy League school, is located in Ithaca, New York, hours away from a major metropolitan area. If you are a city person, you may not be happy being geographically isolated in a rural campus. 


Universities have different academic strengths and many of the best ones may not appear at the top of the US News College Rankings List. Universities with national reputations may not have particularly strong departments in the field of study you want to pursue, so adequate research before applying is necessary. Schools like Harvey Mudd in California, for example, actually produce Engineering PhD’s at a higher rate than MIT. Johns Hopkins University has the preeminent Biomedical Engineering program in the country.

You must venture beyond the rankings and become a student of universities before you apply. As a college student, you will be spending four years of your life and possibly over one million AED on your education, so you should be fully informed of the academic strengths of the university beforehand. Not all universities, for example, offer undergraduate business degrees.

Out of the eight Ivy League universities, only two do. Not every university may offer a major in Petrochemical Engineering. You should do your due diligence before you apply. 


Each university has a distinct culture that impacts the lives of its students on a daily basis. Students should consider whether they should choose a school if it has a particularly strong religious affiliation, for example. What is the quality of life like? What percentage of students enrolled come from foreign countries? How large is the Muslim student population? Do students at a particular institution have a good work-life balance or is the university known strictly for its academic rigor? Universities, like their students, have personalities; does your personality “fit” with the schools you are applying to? It should. 


The best way to research universities is online and, if possible, to visit them in person. In the internet age, you have access to university websites, virtual tours, and a slew of resources which allow you to develop a good understanding of what student life is like before you apply and enroll.

I recommend the Fiske Guide to Colleges for my students, which is an incredible resource and very accurate in its descriptions of university life. Websites such as the College Board, College Prowler, and College Confidential are also excellent and free. If a student has the time, nothing can replace the value of an actual visit.

When you step foot on campus, you should feel like you belong and that you arrived home, as it will be your home for four years. What are the dormitories like? Where is the social life centered on? Is the surrounding area full of cool cafes and restaurants? What is the gym like? These are all important things to consider when applying to college. 


Creating a college list is an exciting process and one in which the student can tailor his search to a set of institutions that are truly right for him. With thousands of options available, and with the proper preparation and guidance, there is no doubt that a motivated and informed student will find a university at which he truly belongs.

Choosing a university is an incredibly important decision, as you will become a member of an organization that will have a tremendous impact on your personal, professional, and academic life.

It is important to apply to schools which are compatible with your personality, goals, attributes, and characteristics that are as unique as you. Ideally, a student should thrive at a university, which will provide him with the proper infrastructure, physical environment, and academic support in order to succeed.