Launch Global Education
Sparks blog: Using Design Thinking in the College Process, Part Three: College List

by Dr. Ann Wagner

In part of three of our series on Design Thinking in the college process, we will look at how you can use it when developing your college list.

Many students have a “dream school,” yet far fewer students fully understand how to develop a well-rounded list of schools that will be a good fit for their needs.  Using the Design Thinking process can be a good way to prioritize features and narrow your list when there are so many schools to consider.

As we covered in part one and summarized in part two, Design Thinking is a way to approach a problem, consider possible solutions, create prototypes, test prototypes, and then evaluate the outcomes. The process is circular, meaning that once you have tested and evaluated a possible solution, you return to the problem with new knowledge to consider your next steps. We use Visualize, Ideate, Prototype, Test, and Evaluate as our terminology. Let’s walk through how you can use the process to narrow your college list.

sign saying "want"


This first step is to think about, and then define your problem. For this exercise, think about your ideal college experience.  What does the campus look and feel like?  Is it a large campus in a rural environment?  Perhaps it is an urban campus set amongst several buildings in a large city.  Are there four seasons?  Or is it warm and sunny all year long? In what part of the world do you want to be?

What do the classrooms look and feel like?  How close—or far away—are you from home? Are you on a first name basis with your professors or are the classes in large lecture halls?  Understanding what kind of campus experience you are looking for helps you narrow your parameters and focus your efforts.

You might even want to create a vision board, either with paper cutouts or digitally, which allows you to express your wants and needs visually.


Next, plug in your wants and needs to a search engine, such as College Board.  What college and universities pop up?  How does your “dream school” measure up to these priorities? What might be an even better fit?  Come up with your long list, one that you can continue to add to as your research continues.  Don’t be afraid to add schools you have never heard of.  This is your ideas generation stage.

blank canvas on easel


There will likely be some that seem to rise to the top for you.  Choose a few of these and research them more fully.  Do they have majors you are interested in? Where do they fit as a reach, fit, or safety school based on your academic profile? Look into the cost of attendance and financial aid opportunities.  Some of the schools will likely remain on your list, while others will come off your list.  Then, with the knowledge you gain from this first set of schools, go back to your long list and choose several more, working through the process again.

university campus in fall


At this point, you have a few colleges and universities to work with.  How can you test these universities further?  There are many ways.  Go on to the school’s website and request information.  Take a virtual tour or set up one in person.  Talk to your college advisor about the university.  Look for people you know who have attended the university or know someone who has.


Now that you have tested some of the colleges and universities on your list.  Go back to your wants and needs.  How does this university stack up? Is it what you thought it would be? Can you see yourself as a student there?  Then take what you have learned from these colleges and universities and return to your prototype stage, selecting another set of schools to take through the design cycle.

happy student on campus

Your college list

After working through this process, you should be able to narrow your list to 10-12 schools that fit your wants and needs well.  They should be a mixture of schools that typically take students slightly above your academic profile (reach schools), at your academic profile (fit schools), and slightly below your academic profile (safety schools).  Using the Design Thinking process should allow you to find the colleges and universities that best fit your needs, not just the schools you’ve heard of or that other people suggest.

Enjoy the process!

This blog is the third in a three-part series on Design Thinking and the college process.

Dr. Ann Wagner

Ann Wagner, EdD is a founder and the Vision Engineer for Launch Education.  Dr. Wagner has led international schools around the world and currently teaches at the university level, working with educators earning their master's degrees.