Safe Bets vs. Reach Schools
As a college consultant, I’m frequently asked, “How many schools should be on my college list?” It seems like a simple question, but the answer is complicated. The Common Application has made applying to multiple schools much easier for students. Obtaining a college education has become increasingly important for economic success in today’s world. These factors have caused the total number of student applications to grow in recent years.
Many schools receive far more applicants than they can possibly admit. In fact, some top-tier schools now report admissions rates of 5% or less. Students who meet the academic standards of their first-choice schools may find themselves on lengthy waitlists. Other students may choose to hold onto an offer from their second-choice college while waiting to hear from their first choice.
Despite these challenges, don’t despair. You can create a reasonable college list. There are several tools that parents and students can use to help them with this step in the application process. By using these tools and the available information about a particular school, students can estimate their odds of being admitted. This data can then be used to decide just how many “backup” applications to submit. Step by step, you can create the list that is right for you.
Building Your Personal College List
During your junior or early senior year, start your college list by deciding which colleges meet your academic and personal goals. Once you’ve decided which schools you would like to attend, then begin weighing your odds of gaining admission to each one.
Rank your performance
Start by finding the admissions rates and average scores and grades of previously admitted students. This information may be found on college websites, in university press releases, in industry reports/publications. One comprehensive, but often dated source is the Common Data Set. Type the school name followed by the words “Common Data Set” into your browser and behold! Then evaluate how your performance compares to that of the existing student body. In general, if your scores are way above the college’s average and the college has high admissions rates, you can relax (a little). If your scores are closer to the school’s average and admissions are highly competitive, you may want to add a few extra backup schools to your college list.
In addition to making your own comparisons, you can also use tools such as Naviance and Academic Index (AI) to evaluate your admissions odds. Naviance is an academic planning tool used by many school districts that allows students to see how their peers have fared when applying to college. You can use this tool to compare yourself to graduates from your high school who have been admitted to the colleges you are considering.
The Academic Index assigns individuals a score between 60 and 240 based on several factors, including a student’s SAT scores, class rank, and GPA. A 2013 article in The Harvard Crimson stated that most Ivy League schools had an average AI of 220.
Categorize your colleges
If you’ve been talking about college admissions with anyone, you’ve probably heard the terms “safety,” “target,” and “reach” used to describe various schools. To categorize the colleges you’d like to attend using these terms, you’ll need to review each school’s data and compare it to your own.
Safety. Your “I know I can” schools are your safety schools. These schools are the ones for which you consider acceptance to be almost certain. When you look at the test scores and grades of the students admitted over the previous few years for a safety school, your scores and grades should be consistently higher. Before you become too confident, be sure to examine the school’s admissions rates. Also, you may find yourself saved by your safety school. If the school isn’t one where you feel you could be truly happy, you should probably keep looking. Your backup school should be one that you would like to attend. Remember to demonstrate your interest at your safety schools.
Target. Next on your college list should be your “I think I can” schools. These are your target schools. Your target school list should include schools for which you are a close match academically. To evaluate your odds of admission, compare your grades and scores to those of the middle 50% of the students admitted to your target schools. Does your performance measure up? If you feel that your odds of admission are high, you may choose to apply to fewer schools… but if each of your choices has a low admit rate (20% or lower), you should consider expanding your list.
Reach. Your reach schools are your “I hope I can” schools. As long as you also apply to other schools for which you have better odds of being accepted, there’s no harm in taking a chance. Select a school or two that you feel would challenge you personally and academically and send in your application. Don’t spend all of your time chasing after nothing but reach schools. Be practical, but don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams.
A Well-Thought-Out College List Covers All the Possibilities
This is your time and your choice. Your college list should include reach, target and safety schools that you want to attend. How many schools make the cut is up to you. So allow yourself to explore your options. Then, relax and wait to see what surprises life has in store for you.
About the author:
Stephanie Klein Wassink is the founder of AdmissionsCheckup.com. A former admissions officer and longtime college consultant, she graduated from Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Stephanie writes frequently for Money Magazine, Huffington Post, and other blogs.
Photo Credit: CollegeDegrees360