3 Tips to Help You Build Your Balanced College List

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

balanced college listResearch Is Key To Creating a Balanced List of Colleges To Apply To

The college admission season is here, but where are you applying? Students should start researching colleges and building a balanced college list junior year, and continue to refine their list throughout the school year.

The college list is a critical piece of your college admissions plan. Everything you have done up to this point – test prep, taking the right courses, making good grades, participating in activities of interest – had led up to this task: Deciding which schools are a good fit for your interests and goals.

It’s important to know who you are and what matters to you when deciding where to apply, as well as how your academic profile stacks up against the school’s admission standards.


Building a balanced college list can be an intimidating process, but these three tips can help get you on the right track.

Know The Difference Between a “Target,” “Reach,” and “Likely” School

Your college list shouldn’t just be a collection of schools that you like. You need to be strategic about where you apply, and that means having a realistic idea of your applicant profile and your chances of admission. If you have a 3.6 GPA, but you’re applying only to colleges with admit rates of less than 10%, your chances of admission will be very hard because you’re competing against tens of thousands of other applicants with perfect grades and test scores. This is where the idea of “target,” “reach,” and “likely” colleges come in.

  • “Likely” schools= student’s academic profile is significantly stronger than the middle 50 percent of students who are typically admitted.
  • “Target” schools= student’s academic profile is similar to that middle 50 percent.
  • “Reach” schools= student’s academic profile is not as strong as the middle 50 percent.

You can find information on median grades and test scores on university websites in order to gauge where your academic profile falls in relation to previously admitted students.


You can do great research and learn everything you can about a school, but nothing beats seeing it in person. College visits often serve as a “gut-check.” A college may seem like a great fit on paper, but if you don’t feel at home when you visit, is it really a good fit for you? Use your breaks and time off from school to visit schools, attend information sessions, and really get a feel for the campus and city before deciding whether to add or remove a school from your college list.

Don’t Add “Fallbacks”

The most important thing to remember when creating your balanced college list is that every school you choose to apply to should be a “first choice.” Now, we know that might not be realistic as it’s normal for students to have one or two schools that are their top picks. However, students also tend to add “fallback” school, or schools that they’re really not that in love with but they think they’ll definitely get in and it can be a “backup” should their other college plans fall through.

This is NOT a good strategy, as every school you apply to should be one that you’re excited to attend. Say you don’t get in anywhere else and all that’s left is the school you added at the last minute that you don’t know much about? This can lead to an unfavorable college experience. Don’t add a school to your list just to have a “backup.” Instead, treat every college you apply to as your first-choice.

What students need to remember is that a college list may change after taking time to thoroughly research, visit, and evaluate your chances of admission. Your balanced college list will go through multiple revisions, so learn to embrace the process and learn more about yourself and your college goals as you learn more about specific colleges.

Need help determining where to apply? Our team of expert counselors is here to help! Contact us today for more information on our college counseling services for juniors and seniors.

Related Topics

11th Grade
Sign Up for the IvyWise Newsletter

Get the IvyWise Newsletter

 简体中文 »
close wechat qr code