Some students may prefer a rural school like Champlain College. Others might prefer the city.

Local Voices columnist Pat Berry helps teens write their college application essays. She is a communications consultant and founder of College Application Camp ( Berry can be reached at Future columns in this series will address financial aid, interviewing, and other aspects of the college application process.

For Montclair Local

The big question on the minds of college-bound seniors is, “Where will I be a year from now?” The answer will depend on realistic planning, a college wish list filled with schools they would like to attend, and some degree of luck.

As an application essay coach and a parent of three adult children, I have many stories — good and bad — about the


application process.

But for this column on creating a college list, I turned to Montclair-based college counseling professionals for help.

Building a list of colleges and universities to which a student ultimately will apply begins with a reality check.

If there are geographical and/or financial constraints, parents and students need to discuss those limitations early.

Robin Abramowitz, an independent college consultant, told me, “It’s sad when a student gains admission to the school of his or her dreams, and then parents explain that it’s just too expensive.”

More often than not, students have no idea where they want to go to college. To find right-fit schools, it’s important that students take stock of their interests and strengths.

How do they learn best? Where do they see themselves thriving — a big school, a small school, a city school? How do they like to spend free time? What do they want to study — biology, gender studies, cybersecurity, business? Until they start looking, students don’t realize the vast array of study options open to them, explained education consultant Barbara Gottesman.

Gottesman is the owner of College Help! Organizing and Advising Services (

Knowing what a student doesn’t want — say, a school with fraternities and sororities or one that’s set in a suburb — is also important.

“There’s a college for everyone — actually, there’s more than one,” Abramowitz said. “Even lower-than-average students have something unique to offer a school.”

A student’s transcript offers another reality-check opportunity. A strong GPA does not necessarily mean a student is ready for a college with high academic standards, said Gottesman. When it comes to measuring a student’s qualifications, the rigor of their high school classes will matter, she said.

“Many students, and some parents, don’t realize how ‘intellectual’ a specific college may be,” she said, adding, “A student with a GPA of 4.6 or 4.7 may not be ready for a Swarthmore or a University of Chicago if they aren’t also an avid reader of books or seminal articles, or follow some kind of higher-level political and cultural media.”

High-achieving students and extremely competitive colleges receive much attention, but the vast majority of college applicants have transcripts and scores that place them in the middle of the academic spectrum. Both Abramowitz and Gottesman see this as an opportunity to discover some gems, schools that may travel under the radar, where students can thrive because of a special interest or talent, or some other factor.

The college sections of libraries and local bookstores typically offer great resources for compiling lists of possible schools. Last year, several of my clients spoke glowingly of the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges,” first published in 1996 by retired New York Times education editor Loren Pope.

Abramowitz has a copy in her office. Pope’s aim was to dispel conventional wisdom about college choice and bring attention to lesser-known colleges. The 2012 edition, revised by education journalist Hilary Masell Oswald, highlights institutions that offer programs for students with learning disabilities.

College websites are also good resources.

“Reach,” “target,” and ”safety” are familiar terms when it comes to handicapping how likely a school is to accept a student. Abramowitz says many subscribe to the theory that a realistic list has two to three reach schools, four target schools, and at least two safety schools, for a total of eight or nine. But she stresses that students should have a genuine interest in attending each school, no matter how likely or unlikely they are to get in.

Aside from identifying one or two “safe” schools — schools that all indicators suggest will accept a student — education consultant Barbara Gottesman has dropped the other categories altogether from her college-planning lexicon.

“There is usually safe, and then there is what I like to call ‘luck with credentials,’” Gottesman told me. “So many kids are eminently qualified for the same colleges, but schools can’t take everyone.” This is especially true for students from New Jersey, which has a disproportionate number of highly educated families.

What should high school underclassmen be doing in terms of planning for college?

Typical advice includes visiting schools they’re curious about, and making sure schools know they’re interested by signing onto the school’s mailing list. For many schools, these “touches” are evidence of genuine interest.

But Abramowitz hopes students understand there’s more to life than college. She advises them to “embrace their high school experience and remember that not every decision should be based on securing admission to college.”

Abramowitz also cautions students not to let the U.S. News and World Report college ranking determine their choice of college. She said, “Success in life does not depend on attending a college with admissions rates in the single digits.”