This is a letter to a student considering retaking her SAT and also talks about how to go about researching her target list of schools:
Nice improvement! Would still like to see writing higher, but CR and Math more important anyways. Yes, for all schools except the University of California, they take your highest scores from multiple sittings and furthermore could care less about any lower scores. So you can count on your "super score" with the higher math from January!
Whether to take again or not entirely depends on you and whether you think that you would score significantly higher in any of the sections. Looking back on your latest practice tests, these scores seem to be pretty indicative of your practice tests, and therefore, I would say that with the sufficient preparation that you have done (more than 10 practice tests and hours of individual practice!), you hit your expected target range. While further extensive practice may bring the score a bit higher, it is unlikely that it will go that much higher and therefore not really make much of a difference in admissions.
Given your current list though, it does make the upper categories a bit of a stretch, but then they are a bit of a stretch for anyone, regardless of the SAT scores. Remember that the sun does not rise and set on the SAT's alone. It may be time to put this to rest and focus on other elements that strengthen your profile.
Regarding researching universities: it is tough, no doubt about it. The goal is to try to find as many specific things that will align you, your interests and your achievements with the goals of the school. The more unique and uniquely personal, the better. College Prowler is good, but keep in mind that it is using bigger categories, so not likely to have enough particulars. I like College Confidential a lot (Oh, the hours that pass with Prab reading endless threads on College Confidential), but also keep in mind that it is user generated, so often has more negative (since people are more likely to take effort to post for negative than positive reasons) but that can balance the positive that is ubiquitous on the colleges own websites. These resources are good to generally narrow your list, but for research to convince the school, i.e., to address the "Why this school essay", you will need to dig deeper into the school. I find admissions people's blogs useful, department sites, research that interests you, clubs and organizations, school newspapers, all to be good hunting grounds.
I will be sending some resources for thinking about your overall message (Personal Brand) and for the Common App Main Essay very soon. The goal will be to work on some of these essays that we know will be there next year and not change during June and July. For now, I would stay focussed on narrowing the list to 10-12 schools.
Regarding the Journal, I can see your notes if I go and look, but Journal is generally there as your own reservoir of notes to help you when you begin researching for your "why" essays, and also to be a good log of your process of researching schools. I recommend talking to everyone who will listen to you and practice explaining your reasons for liking various schools. This kind of practice in articulating your reasons will really help you hone in on the things that most genuinely reflect your personal reasons for liking the school and will also help you recognize those things that do not resonate as authentic or seem too general or common among schools. That latter bit is not bad, in fact, it is good that there is a common thread that connects your various schools (shows that you have chosen all schools that are a good "fit") but if you are going to tell the school why you love them, you need to dig into their specific qualities that make them unique for you. For instance, you would not describe the reasons that you like your best friend as general things like, s/he has hair on her/his head! You will point out the qualities that you really care about that make him or her unique for you.
Love the questions, keep them flowing and can't wait to also see some of your own generated answers!!