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How to Create a Balanced College List

On August 1st, the Common Application and many school-specific supplements were released and millions of rising seniors around the US and the world embarked on the college application process. The first and perhaps most important step in the application process is deciding which schools to apply to. Students should create a balanced list of reach, target, and likely schools that are a good academic and social fit. There are thousands of factors to consider when choosing which colleges to put on your final college application list, so do not be swayed by name recognition alone! To set your application journey off on the right foot, the expert team of counselors and advisors at IvyWise offer the following tips for creating a balanced list of colleges where you will be happy and successful.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – students must conduct extensive research on several colleges in order to choose and apply to a balanced list of schools. In addition to helping you refine your choices, down the road this research will also enable you to personalize your applications and communicate to an admissions committee why you want to attend that school. Be sure to research prospective schools with as many sources as possible, including websites, college guidebooks (we like the Fiske Guide to Colleges), current students and alumni, and college visits. As you do your research, purge any schools from your list that do not meet your needs. Ideally, you will end up with a list of 10 to 15 “number one” schools, each of which you would be happy to attend.

Have a Conversation with Your High School Counselor
At the beginning of the school year, meet with your high school college counselor to evaluate and narrow down your list of schools. Keep in mind that colleges will evaluate your profile in relation to your peers at your high school, so your counselor can likely provide some insight here. A candid discussion about your course load, grades and class rank, extracurricular activities, and goals, will allow your counselor to honestly assess your college list and perhaps also allow him or her to suggest some additional schools that might be a good fit.

Reach, Target, and Likely, Oh My!
To create a balanced list, students must first understand what makes a school a reach, target, or likely so that they can categorize their list appropriately. Most schools have an area on their website that shows the admission profile of the most recent incoming class. These profiles include data such as the number of students who applied, were admitted, and enrolled, class rank, and standardized test scores.

Based on your own profile, categorize each school as a reach (less than 30 percent chance of gaining admission; your profile is not as strong as that of the middle 50 percent of admitted students), target (30-60 percent chance of admission; your profile is similar to that of the middle 50 percent of admitted students), or likely school (greater than 60 percent chance of admission; your academic profile is significantly stronger than that of the middle 50 percent of admitted students). For help calculating your chance of admission, use Chapter 4 in Dr. Kat’s book, The Truth About Getting In. At IvyWise, we advise students to apply to 3-4 reach schools, 4-5 target schools, and 2-3 likely schools.

Keep an Open Mind
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to choosing a college. It’s a personal decision that should be based on the factors that are most meaningful to the student. Before our students add any school to their college list we ask, “Why this school?” Students should be able to answer this question about all of the schools on their college list. And we’re not the only ones who want to know – many colleges, including five of the Ivy League colleges, have a variation of the “Why this college?” question on their application. Once a student gets to know a college through intensive research, visits and other experiences, then he or she can decide if that school will be a good fit, regardless of reputation or where it falls on a publication’s ranking.

Jon Reider, the Director of College Counseling at San Francisco University High School and a former Senior Admissions Officer at Stanford University, advises students to, “Resist brands and ‘names.’ Ask yourself: ‘I know this is supposed to be a ‘good, even great’ college. But what do I really know about it? Can I name even one professor there? What is its philosophy?'”

Try this. Cover up the names of the schools and simply discuss academic course of study, professors, activities, student population, resources, surrounding community, etc., and try to envision yourself at that school. Could you see yourself enjoying classes and extracurricular activities there? Could you see yourself at that school for the next four years? When you focus on the experiences, a college might be cut even though its name was a very attractive one.

Many students get their hearts set on one school, and if they don’t get in, it’s the end of the world – that’s exactly the wrong attitude to have! With more than 3,000 colleges in the US, it is important for students to do the research to find a balanced list of schools that they would be equally excited to attend. IvyWise counselors love working with students to find the schools where they will be happy and successful, especially schools a student may not have heard of or that weren’t originally on a student’s radar. Ultimately, creating a comprehensive list now will ensure you’re not left hanging in the balance come decision time.

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