Finding the right college by looking at its peers

This Cartoon pretty much summarizes many people’s attitudes about colleges. They mistake the joining of an athletic conference as a confirmation of shared values and qualities. While the Ivy League IS an outstanding collection of colleges, but several of them are quite different from each other. Rural pre-profession Dartmouth vs Urban Great books of Columbia vs the Open Curriculum of Brown. Would you apply to all three? Perhaps. And Perhaps there is a better way than loading up the shotgun and aiming at just one specific college league. 

Every year, colleges are asked to list their peer institutions, the ones they compare themselves against. Brown, for example, picked 17:


  • Columbia U
  • Cornell U
  • Dartmouth C
  • Duke U
  • Georgetown U
  • Harvard U
  • Johns Hopkins U
  • Massachusetts Inst of Tech
  • Northwestern U
  • Princeton U
  • Rice U
  • Stanford U
  • U of Chicago
  • U of Pennsylvania
  • U of Rochester
  • Washington U in St. Louis
  • Yale


Yes, they selected all of the Ivy plus several other intellectual powerhouses. They also slected Columbia (which indetified no peers) and Dartmouth, who choose many of the same in their group of 16:

  • Amherst C
  • Brown U
  • Columbia U
  • Cornell U
  • Duke U
  • Georgetown U
  • Harvard U
  • Johns Hopkins U
  • Northwestern U
  • Princeton U
  • Stanford U
  • U of Chicago
  • U of Pennsylvania
  • U of Rochester
  • Williams C
  • Yale U

These are the company they keep. Motivational expert Jim Rohn opined that  “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Identifying peers can be a proxy for that sentiment on an institutional level. These are often the institutions that the colleges cross apps with. Like, so to speak, finds like. But drilling into the data deeper may help you build a deeper college list. Brown identifed 16 colleges, of which 11 liked them back so to speak:

  • Cornell U
  • Dartmouth C
  • Georgetown U
  • Johns Hopkins U
  • Northwestern U
  • Stanford U
  • U of Chicago
  • U of Pennsylvania
  • U of Rochester
  • Washington U in St. Louis
  • Yale U

But many other colleges identified Brown–we might call these aspirational colleges:

  • Boston C
  • Bowdoin C
  • Brandeis U
  • C of William and Mary
  • Emory U
  • Lehigh U
  • New York U
  • Stevens Inst of Tech
  • Tufts U
  • U of Delaware
  • U of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • U of Notre Dame
  • U of Southern California
  • U of Virginia
  • Vanderbilt U
  • Wellesley C
  • Wesleyan U
  • Worcester Polytechnic Inst

While some of these are similarly selective, many are a little less selective. Building a deep college list means going deeper into the pool. Yet, this information does not really point WHY these colleges include Brown on their list. They do not share what characteristics they identified as worthy of aspiring to. Another tool many counselor love comes courtesy of Steven Antanoff: College Express, which is based on high book of college lists, The College Finder:

Lists & Rankings 


You can click on any list to discover other colleges on that list. For example, perhaps you love Brown for two reasons, 

Lover of Ideas Internationalism

1. St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD)

1. St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM)

2. Reed College (Portland, OR)

3. University of Chicago (Chicago, IL)

4. Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA)

5. Brown University (Providence, RI)

5. Kenyon College (Gambier, OH)

5. Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH)

8. Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)

9. Bard College (Annandale on Hudson, NY)

9. Carleton College (Northfield, MN)

9. Hampshire College (Amherst, MA)

12. Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY)

13. Amherst College (Amherst, MA)

13. Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA)

13. Haverford College (Haverford, PA)

13. Sarah Lawrence College (Bronxville, NY)

13. Yale University (New Haven, CT)

18. Earlham College (Richmond, IN)

18. Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)

18. The Evergreen State College (Olympia, WA)

18. Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT)



  • Beloit College (Beloit, WI)
  • Brandeis University (Waltham, MA)
  • Clark University (Worcester, MA)
  • Colby College (Waterville, ME)
  • Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH)
  • Davidson College (Davidson, NC)
  • Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts (New York, NY)
  • Furman University (Greenville, SC)
  • Goucher College (Baltimore, MD)
  • Guilford College (Greensboro, NC)
  • Hamilton College (Clinton, NY)
  • Hartwick College (Oneonta, NY)
  • Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA)
  • Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD)
  • Lafayette College (Easton, PA)
  • Lewis and Clark College (Portland, OR)
  • Macalester College (St. Paul, MN)
  • Marlboro College (Marlboro, VT)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
  • McGill University (Montreal, CAN)
  • Occidental College (Los Angeles, CA)
  • Pitzer College (Claremont, CA)
  • Rice University (Houston, TX)
  • Scripps College (Claremont, CA)
  • Sewanee: The University of the South (Sewanee, TN)
  • Smith College (Northampton, MA)
  • St. Lawrence University (Canton, NY)
  • Stanford University (Stanford, CA)
  • Susquehanna University (Selinsgrove, PA)
  • The New School (New York, NY)
  • Tufts University (Medford, MA)
  • United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, MD)
  • University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, CA)
  • University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)
  • University of Redlands (Redlands, CA)
  • University of Richmond (University of Richmond, VA)
  • University of Rochester (Rochester, NY)
  • Whitman College (Walla Walla, WA)
  • Williams College (Williamstown, MA)


  • American University (Washington, DC)
  • Bard College (Annandale on Hudson, NY)
  • Boston College (Chestnut Hill, MA)
  • Boston University (Boston, MA)
  • Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, OH)
  • Brandeis University (Waltham, MA)
  • Brigham Young University — Provo (Provo, UT)
  • Brown University (Providence, RI)
  • Carleton University (Ottawa, Ontario, CAN)
  • City University of New York, Graduate Center (NY)
  • Clark University (Worcester, MA)
  • Clemson University (Clemson, SC)
  • Columbia University (New York, NY)
  • Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)
  • Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH)
  • Duke University (Durham, NC)
  • Emory University (Atlanta, GA)
  • Florida International University (Miami, FL)
  • Georgia State University (Atlanta, GA)
  • Hamilton College (Clinton, NY)
  • Hampshire College (Amherst, MA)
  • Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)
  • Indiana University Bloomington (Bloomington, IN)
  • James Madison University (Harrisonburg, VA)
  • Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD)
  • Lehigh University (Bethlehem, PA)
  • Loyola University Chicago (Chicago, IL)
  • toggle favorite saveYes, connect me!
  • Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI)
  • toggle favorite saveYes, connect me!
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
  • McMaster University (CAN)
  • Middlebury College (Middlebury, VT)
  • Northwestern University (Evanston, IL)
  • Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)
  • Rice University (Houston, TX)
  • Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey — New Brunswick (Piscataway, NJ)
  • SUNY — Binghamton (Binghamton, NY)
  • Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX)
  • St. Lawrence University (Canton, NY)
  • Stanford University (Stanford, CA)
  • Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA)
  • Syracuse University (Syracuse, NY)
  • Temple University (Philadelphia, PA)
  • The College of Wooster (Wooster, OH)
  • The George Washington University (Washington, DC)
  • The University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ)
  • The University of British Columbia (Vancouver, CAN)
  • The University of New Mexico (Albuquerque, NM)
  • The University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX)
  • Trinity College (Hartford, CT)
  • Tulane University (New Orleans, LA)
  • University of Alberta (Edmonton, CAN)
  • University of California — Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA)
  • University of California, Davis (Davis, CA)
  • University of California, Irvine (Irvine, CA)
  • University of California, San Diego (La Jolla, CA)
  • University of California, Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, CA)
  • University of California, Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA)
  • University of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
  • University of Connecticut (Storrs, CT)
  • University of Delaware (Newark, DE)
  • University of Denver (Denver, CO)
  • University of Houston (Houston, TX)
  • University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (Champaign, IL)
  • University of Iowa (Iowa City, IA)
  • University of Kansas (Lawrence, KS)
  • University of Massachusetts Amherst (Amherst, MA)
  • University of Michigan — Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, MI)
  • University of Minnesota — Twin Cities (Minneapolis, MN)
  • University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Las Vegas, NV)
  • University of New Orleans (New Orleans, LA)
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC)
  • University of Notre Dame (Notre Dame, IN)
  • University of Oklahoma (Norman, OK)
  • University of Oregon (Eugene, OR)
  • University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)
  • University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA)
  • University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)
  • University of Texas at Arlington (Arlington, TX)
  • University of Toronto (Toronto, Ontario, CAN)
  • University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA)
  • University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario, CAN)
  • University of Wisconsin — Madison (Madison, WI)
  • Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN)
  • Wells College (Aurora, NY)
  • Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI)
  • Yale University (New Haven, CT)
  • York University (Toronto, Ontario, CAN)


Only Brandies makes all three lists–the aspirational peers, the college for lover of ideas and the list for Internationalism. Collegexpress has limitation sin that it does not identify how they generate their list. Some comes from experts (who are these), some from actual data, and others from outside sources. Still, for most veteran college counselors, the lists typically prove valid. 

End Note: The Chronicle of Higher Education has complied the data in an interactive feature that allows you to drill into colleges and their peers. Here is what Princeton looks like: