In today's admission environment, it's more important than ever to develop a diverse application group. Including geographic diversity in your list of colleges can help you open up exciting choices that fit your goals and interests. How? Most colleges actively seek students from outside their core geographic area, and most students tend to stay within a few hundred miles of home when attending college.
Expand your college research horizons
Many, if not most students begin their college research within driving distance from home. Two to five hours seems a typical comfort level for most families. Of course, some students start the college process convinced they want to get as far away from home as possible!
Either way, make sure you take the time to explore some options that are outside the range you expected to consider. If you're not sure where to look, check out college reviews or college ratings, which can often be grouped by geographic region, to get a sense of what the options are farther from home. College videos are also a great way to get a sense of a particular school that you're unable to visit right away.
Go beyond your high school's common options
Most students are aware that graduates of their high school seem to attend a relatively small group of colleges. These colleges might include a dozen or so of the more competitive institutions, plus a dozen or so public and private schools that have a good reputation in that high school. Perhaps the high school counselor has good relationships with college admission officers at some of those schools and routinely directs students to apply to them.
What's interesting is the fact that at nearby high schools, let alone schools an hour or two away, the college reviews and preference lists are usually very different. Of course, the lists might have some of the better-known colleges in common. Even so, one school might focus on one or two of them, while another school's students will zero in on a few others.
We hear all the time from families things like "our counselor has an 'in' at Cornell" or "Brown hates our school." We encourage you to step out of your particular school environment and its college ratings and take a more global view of the college landscape. There are so many excellent schools across the country (and abroad), that it makes very little sense to limit yourself. This is especially true when you consider the benefits of applying more broadly.
Approach college research methodically
We are not suggesting that you apply to 30 colleges with no rhyme or reason. You can very well start looking at colleges close to home. As you arrive at the ideal models that interest you in terms of type of environment, size, academic programs, college tuition, and so on, you can then look to add similar schools that are farther away.
You can then segment your list by reach, target, and probable colleges, arriving at a total list of perhaps eight to ten schools. By avoiding the tendency to "bunch up" at the same group of colleges all the other students at your high school are applying to, you should arrive at some exciting options.
By Howard and Matthew Greene, the hosts of two PBS college-planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.