How to fall in like with less selective schools

If you want to have a successful college application process in just about every way imaginable, it’s hard to think of a better strategy than to start with a balanced college list, one with a healthy mix of schools (slightly) out of reach, some where you’ll likely get in, and a few where you’ll definitely get in. Students with balanced college lists have less stressful application processes, they get admitted to more schools, and they get more financial aid.

Where college list balance typically falls apart for students and parents is through a focus on prestigious colleges. Students or their parents believe that the schools they’re most likely to get into are somehow beneath them; they don’t see the point in wasting their time applying to schools that accept many of their applicants. They’d rather play the reach school lottery and double down with a few more applications to famous, highly selective colleges.

If your list has fallen out of balance and you’re having a hard time getting excited about schools that might readjust the scales, here’s a fast way to reengage with some colleges that are a lot more likely to say yes.

Imagine that every school on your existing list said no.

Unfortunately, most counselors see this happen every year. A few students combine a bad case of namebranditis with a refusal to apply to schools they think are beneath them, only to be left with no college options. And when the alternative is to attend no college at all, most of those students suddenly become a lot more open-minded about less famous colleges.

I’m not suggesting that you go college list haywire and apply to 25 schools. In fact, one big benefit of a balanced college list should be that you have a reasonable number of schools. For most students, that’s somewhere between 6-10 colleges depending on where you apply and what your counselor recommends.

Compared to those dream schools you most want to attend, plenty of other schools may not shine so bright. But those that seem dull today by comparison would have plenty of luster if they were your only options tomorrow.

You, your parents, and your counselor want you to get into those colleges you’d be most excited to attend. That’s the desired outcome. But it’s important to make sure you’ll have options if those schools don’t come through.

Don’t tell me or anyone else that none of the other schools are good enough. There are over 2,000 colleges in this country and plenty of them—including those that admit lots of applicants—are loaded with smart, interesting people to meet, fascinating experiences to be had, and plenty of learning and growth to be done.

You’ve spent plenty of time imagining yourself at your dream colleges, and it might be unpleasant to picture yourself anywhere else. But it would be much more unpleasant not to have a college to attend at all. Dream schools may say no, but a balanced college list means that others will say yes.

Here are two past posts, here and here, with advice about how to balance your list.