One of the most stressful aspects of the college application process involves narrowing down the number of colleges on your list. Many private college admission counselors will craft a hand-tailored college list for their student clients—it’s one of the many perks of hiring an expert. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford their fees, and for this reason, the Crimson Admission Blog has compiled a guide to creating your very own college list.

1. Start early!

High school is already hard enough. Don’t let creating a college list become an additional stress factor in your life. Creating a college list can be difficult at times, but should ultimately be an exciting process. By starting early, you can ensure that it will not cause undue stress in your life.

2. Brainstorm your ideal college

Be sure to dream big and not limit yourself during this process. How do you imagine yourself as a college student, and what college best fits that vision? It is also important to think beyond the generic qualities of a college (college size, college type, strength of academic programs, location, etc.) and consider the holistic college experience. You’ll call this place home for the next four years, and factors like the student body composition, residential & dining life, class structure, educational values and philosophy, and even weather are more important than you might think.

3. Ask around for college names

Ask your circle of support (teachers, guidance counselors, family, friends, etc.) about their college lists, and if they have recommendations for you. They all likely have some experience in evaluating colleges. More importantly, they know you, and would have insights into what college may suit your tastes.

At the same time, be careful to not let your circle influence what college ends up on your list. In the end, your college shortlist and ultimate decision should be your own.

4. Expand Your List

There are over 4,000 colleges in the United States. That means that although the names you have heard from your support circle is a good starting place, it is also crucial to keep an open mind and broaden your options to colleges you might not have considered or even heard about.

Some college search engines with good filter options (this is where brainstorming comes in handy!) are:

bigfuture by The College Board

ACT College Search

College Prowler

5. Narrow down your list through preliminary research

You should have compiled a substantial list of names now. Do some preliminary online research on each (online college profiles as well as the colleges’ official admission websites are useful places to start), and eliminate all the ones you feel confident do not match you, until you have a handful more that you eventually want to end up applying to.

6. Finalize your list through research, research, and (more) research

It is now time to give each college an in-depth look. Visiting is always a good idea, but if you can’t, learn as much about these colleges as you can—ask past and current students, request brochures, trawl their websites, take virtual tours, visit the pages of the departments and extracurricular activities you are particularly interested in, etc. It might even be helpful to create a college comparison spreadsheet (it might be nerdy, but it works!). No matter what, as your list narrows down, your research on each college should get more rigorous. Again, your brainstorm might be helpful here.

7. Keep your list balanced

It is important to both dream big and be practical with your list. Generally speaking, you have at least two “reach” colleges, two “likely” colleges, and two “safety” schools (one an admission safety, and one a financial safety), for a total of six colleges. However, each person is different—ultimately, the length and exact composition of your list is up to you.

While creating your list, keep in mind the cost of sending each your scores and applications—but don’t let this limit you! If applying to all the schools on your list would be a financial burden, ask your school and do research on how to receive fee waivers.

In the end, your list should have two qualities:

First, it should be short enough that you will be able to put effort into each application without too much stress, but it should be long enough that you can reasonably expect several good options come April.

Second, you should be happy going to any of your colleges. It’s fine to have a dream school, but if you can’t honestly picture yourself at a college on your list (whether it be a safety, likely, or reach school), it has no place on your list.

And most importantly, don’t freak out! Remember: creating your college list might be challenging at times, but in the end, it should be exciting.