Balance your college list

One of the best college admissions strategies is to apply to a balanced college list, one where the majority of schools are likely to accept you.

As you meet with your counselor to discuss your colleges, divide your schools into three categories:

1. Reach schools

Reach schools are schools where you are not likely to be admitted.  A school can be defined as a “Reach” for you for two reasons:

  • The students who are being admitted have grades, test scores, and extra-curricular profiles that are stronger than yours.
  • Some schools are reaches for everybody. If you have a 4.6 GPA, and 2350 on the SAT, three thousand hours of community service, and you hold the world record for one-armed push-ups, you still don’t have a good chance of being admitted to Harvard.  It’s not because your grades aren’t high enough or you didn’t do enough push-ups.  When a school admits fewer than ten out of every 100 people who apply, statistically, nobody has a good chance.

There’s nothing wrong with applying to reach schools—most of our Collegewise students apply to between one and three of them.  But don’t play the lottery and apply to a dozen reach schools.  It never works, and worse, you’ll sacrifice time and energy from the applications to schools more likely to say yes. That’s not a smart division of labor.

2. Targets

Target schools are places where the students who get admitted have similar coursework, grades and test scores to yours.  It doesn’t mean that you should pack your bags and buy all the school paraphernalia right now, but you do have a pretty good chance.  The majority of the schools on your list should fit in the “target” section.   

3. Safeties

Safety schools are places where you and your counselor are virtually certain you will be admitted.  More importantly, your safety schools have to be places that you would actually want to go if you got in.  I’ve seen students who haphazardly picked a safety school but in reality would rather be sent to juvenile hall than enroll in that college. A few safeties on your list that you would be happy to attend will take a tremendous amount of pressure off during the college admissions process. 

The advantages of a balanced list: you’ll get more offers of admission, more financial aid, and more opportunities to actually enjoy the process.  And with over 2,000 colleges to choose from, almost everyone can find targets and safeties to keep their list—and their admissions chances—in balance.