As you begin to prepare for your college applications, it’s important to build a balanced list of schools. When determining the number of colleges to apply to, be sure to include colleges with varying levels of selectivity.

What is a balanced list? You should include institutions that align with your interests and expectations related to academics, social atmosphere, experiential learning opportunities and finances. Colleges that comprise your list should include schools that fall into a few different categories: likely, target, reach and far reach. The categorization of a school will differ depending on your academic record, test scores and intended major. By visiting a college’s website and reviewing its admissions profile, you will learn more about how your own application may be considered, and which category the school falls into for you.

Likely colleges are schools with higher acceptance rates and where you are likely to be accepted based on your academic profile compared to that of the average student. Your GPA and/or standardized test scores should fall above the middle fiftieth percentile of GPAs and scores of the student body at that university, if possible. While there is no guarantee of acceptance, these are schools for which you should feel very confident about your chances of admission!

Target schools have more moderate acceptance rates than likely schools. When comparing your profile to that of each university, your GPA and/or test scores should fall within the middle fiftieth percentile of the school. In fact, your academic credentials should match or be stronger than the midpoint of the fiftieth percentile. If a school is truly a target (or match), you should anticipate a 35 – 75% chance of acceptance. While that is a high probability, it is not a slam dunk! It just means that your profile puts you in the running for acceptance, but your essays, extracurricular (EC) profile and letters of recommendation (LORs) need to be very good to beat out the competition.

Reach colleges have the lowest acceptance rates on your list. Typically, a reach school is one where your academic profile lands in the bottom quarter, or even bottom half, of a university’s middle fiftieth percentile. That said, even if your academic credentials are at the highest level, but the university admits approximately 15% of students or fewer, you should call it a reach or far reach, simply because the school will not be able to admit all highly qualified applicants – there just isn’t room at the college. You’ll want to ensure that your essays, ECs and LORs are top-notch to get into your reach schools.

To ensure your list is balanced, AcceptU recommends that you apply to 6 to 10 schools in total: 2 likely schools, 3 – 5 target schools, and 1 – 4 reach (or far reach) schools.

Why is this important? If you apply primarily to reach and far reach colleges, then you run the risk of having fewer options (and possibly none!) to choose from in April of your senior year. By applying to colleges that have a range of acceptance rates and schools that match your academic background, you will broaden the number of colleges that accept you in April.

About the author
Emily Sheldrake

Emily received a BA from Middlebury College and an M.S.Ed. in higher education from University of Pennsylvania. Emily has more than six years of admissions and advising experience at several institutions, including Swarthmore College, Temple University and Penn, where she evaluated applicants for the Wharton School. Emily manages a caseload of clients as well as a team of AcceptU counselors. Emily is an IECA Associate Member.

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