Creating your college list can feel overwhelming (cue "brutal" by Olivia Rodrigo). I get it— I'm here to help! Once you know what kind of college you’re looking for, the next step is to create a balanced college list. It’s all about finding the right fit for you! I'll talk about the different “likelihoods” of college acceptance and my recommendations for how many of each type to apply to.
I’ll give the shortened version first in case you’re reading this on the go, and then the more detailed version later on!
So what are they?
So, to start, knowing how you learn best and what kind of student environment you’re looking for is one of the first, most important things to consider. After you have that figured out, you can start to look for colleges that take into consideration how your academic performance and the typical academic performance of a college match up. Usually, these are categorized based on your likelihood of acceptance—likely, level, and reach.
How many should I apply to?
College lists usually are about 10-or-so colleges with a balance of likely, level, and reach schools, each unique to you. Ideally, you should have somewhere between around 3 likely schools, 3-4 level schools, and 2-3 reach schools so that you’ll have a bunch of options when the time comes to choose the place where you may spend your college years!
Let’s break down what these categories mean:
(Here’s the shorter version I promised!):
Categories of Schools
- Very likely you’ll get into
- Your GPA > Average student’s GPA at this college
- Perks: You can get academic merit scholarships!
- Your GPA and/or test scores “match” with the college’s
- Pro Tip: Spend time finding one that’s a good fit for you
- Perks: Can get academic merit scholarships!
- Your GPA and/or test scores fall in the lower 25% of their typical incoming class’
- Pro Tip: Take the stress off— apply to reach schools with an open, whatever-happens-happens mindset!
Want to learn more? Here is the more detailed version:
What is a likely school?
U.S. News explains that a student can find a likely, or safety, school "by comparing their grades and test scores to the school's admissions statistics for the average first-year student. If a prospective student's academic credentials are well above this range, then they can consider the school a safety school."
Typically, having scores above the 75th percentile for a particular school would be considered being "well above" a school's range. Too often students do not pay enough attention to these schools; however, depending on your financial situation, they may be very important. Why? Because you can get academic merit scholarships. Many schools, both private and public, will give students merit money as a way to incentivize the higher achieving students to attend their institution. Certainly a big achievement! As with any college on your list, however, be sure to also ask yourself, "Would I be happy at this school?"
Got accepted and are confused about your Financial Aid Award Letter? Check out our post about how to read your award letter.
Colleges that are considered level, also referred to as “match,” are ones in which you should get accepted into based on your GPA and test scores. You fall nicely within the 50% range of what they are looking for in a candidate for admission. Keep in mind, though, that nothing is guaranteed. Spend a good amount of time focusing on these schools and finding the best fit, since it is very possible that you could attend one of these schools.
These colleges may even cost less than you think–check out our Straightforward Guide to Understanding Financial Aid.
The best way to think about a reach school is: “I probably will not get into this school, but it is worth a try.” By definition, these schools are “reaches,” meaning that your statistics (GPA and/or test scores) fall into the lower 25% of what they typically accept for their incoming class. As a result, it’s best not to invest solely into this category of school, so that you have lots of other options that may be a better fit for you.
Find just 2-3 reach schools that you like and apply to them. If you get in, fantastic! If not, no big deal because you know that you’ve applied to many schools in which you will get in. With this mindset, the entire college application process will be so much less stressful.
Here’s our podcast about Tips for Making the Final Choice of College :)
Note to Parents/Guardians: To any parents/guardians reading this, I wanted to put this note with the Reach Schools. Please, try not to put unrealistic pressure on yourself or your student when it comes to reach schools. In the end, not many people care where your student goes to school. Yes, it’s fun to talk about or to post on social media, but encouraging your student to pick the best-fit college for them will go a much longer way. Try to avoid getting caught up in the “Name Game” of colleges, at the expense of your student. In the end, who cares if people don’t recognize the name of your student’s college, if your student is happiest there? Help to change the culture of student pressure.
Overall, again, while these categories are NOT the only important part of picking a college, they are helpful in making sure your college list is well-rounded! Remember: about 3 likely schools, 3-4 level schools, and 2-3 reach schools is the rule of thumb. I know you’ll find your right fit. Til next time! 😊