top of page


The College List Balancing Act

Many students have been thinking about where they want to apply to college their whole lives. By the end of junior year, however, it’s time to make a concrete list. This requires some work – research, analysis, and most of all, self reflection.

When a list is complete, a student should be able to tell anyone reading it exactly why they want to go to each school on it. Answers like “nice campus”, “great reputation”, “my girlfriend is applying there”, or, the biggest no-no, “it’s my safety school," are inadequate. Instead, each school should be viewed through a highly personal lens, focused on the student’s academic, social and emotional needs. And in the end, the list should NOT contain any schools the student would not be happy to attend.

The leading characteristic of a complete list is balance. Let’s assume that every school on the list has already been vetted for the correct major(s), academic fit, size, location, career counseling, special services, relationship levels with professors, diversity and any other aspects that the student cares about. So far so good. But let’s face it, some schools are more selective than others. Any student who focuses only on highly selective schools, no matter that student’s GPA, scores, activities, and accomplishments, is playing with fire.

Schools that accept under 25% of applicants are simply a crapshoot for everyone. Those who apply already have the numbers, so the admissions folks turn their attention to building a class that meets a unique set of requirements. And there’s no way to know what these are. These are “Reach” schools. Should you have Reach schools on your list? Of course, as long as you feel you could thrive in the competitive environment that comes with that label.

If your GPA and scores fall within the average range for the school in question, it’s called a “Target” school. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you are a shoe-in. Again, there’s no law that says college admissions decision criteria have to be fair or to be available to the public. Still, for these schools, it’s reasonable to feel more confident than a student would about the Reach schools on his list.

Finally, a list should contain “Likely” schools. These are defined as schools at which a student’s GPA and Test scores well exceed the average of accepted students and that have more reasonable acceptance rates than the handful of under 25% colleges that everyone’s heard of.

A balanced list will include an equal number of schools in each category. A total list should be in the 10-15 school range. A list with many more schools than that usually indicates less in-depth thinking about any one school on the list.

Keep in mind, our goal for everyone we work with is to end up with a “sea of yesses” with, perhaps, an occasional “no”--not the other way around!

bottom of page