The process of making a college list requires a lot of time and effort depending on personal preferences. Preferences include size, location, type of school, majors and related academic opportunities such as internships and studying abroad. Although these factors are important, students should be mindful about their chances of getting accepted to certain schools. Therefore, a well-balanced college list must consist of a reasonable number of schools, considering personal preferences as well as acceptance chances.
In general, college lists should be divided into three categories based on chance of acceptance: Reach (sometimes also referred to as “dream”), match and safety schools.
Reach schools are the most selective schools on your list and the most difficult schools at which to be admitted. These are schools at which your academic qualifications (GPA, rigor of curriculum and standardized test scores) are lower than previously admitted freshmen. You should also categorize a school as a reach school also if their admission rate is lower than 10-15%. If your academic credentials are a bit lower than their averages, but you have other unique and compelling aspects in your application, you may still have a chance. It is unlikely, but it doesn’t mean impossible.
You can set these schools as your first choice, but the common number of reach schools on the list should only range from one to three. It is sometimes a good idea to apply for Early Decision to your reach/dream schools. If you get in, you take it and don’t have to wait until March.
Match schools are schools at which your credentials are within 50% of their admitted freshmen. Your academic performance matches well with what the school looks for and you are likely to get accepted. However, do note that although acceptance rate is good, acceptance rate is only the possibility so you have to show your best on the application. Since you have a higher chance at these schools, your list should mostly match schools.
Safety schools are schools at which your academic performance confidently reaches or exceeds their average previously admitted freshmen class. Your chance of acceptance at these schools is the most certain on the list. A range of one to three safety schools on a college list is reasonable. Think of them as your plan B.
In some cases, safety schools are great final options in terms of finances or any preferences that reach and match schools can’t satisfy. If you’re one of the more qualified students, it is more likely they will offer you a merit scholarship to persuade you to enroll at their institution (which would, in turn, push their academic averages and ranking up).
The college admissions process always contains elements of surprise; therefore, having a balanced list of colleges will maximize your acceptance rate and help reduce your anxiety.