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Is Your College List Unbalanced? How to Know If You Have Too Many “Reach” Schools

It’s important to dream big when planning for your future, but college bound students also need to dream smart when it comes to their college lists. A list too heavy on “reach” schools leads to an unbalanced college list and a greater chance of students being left with few offers of admission come decision day.

What is a Balanced College List?
Ideally, students will apply to a list of “target,” “likely,” and “reach” colleges. This is what we call a balanced college list – a wide range of best-fit schools with varying degrees of selectivity and chances of admission – with an equal distribution among the classifications. Not too heavy on reaches or too light on target and likely schools. It’s important to have a balanced list in order to maximize students’ chances of having multiple offers of admission to weigh come spring, or more choices should students be deferred or denied from their top-choice early school. Pulling together a balanced college list also affords students the opportunity to research and become familiar with schools they may not have considered before.

What is a “Reach” School?
Many think of reach schools as institutions that are hyper-selective and hard for anyone to gain admission. In fact, a reach is a school where the applicant’s academic profile is not as strong as the middle 50% of students who are typically admitted. So while hyper-selective schools can be reaches for many students, reaches can also be schools with high admissions rates but competitive academic standards. It’s important for students to have a full understanding of their academic profile when building their college lists in order to determine their actual chances of admission. This is where a knowledgeable college counselor comes in – they can help students and parents better understand the admissions process and how a student might be read or evaluated at certain schools on that student’s list.

So How Can You Tell If Your List is Unbalanced?
First, take inventory of your list. Have you considered how your academic profile stacks up against the middle 50% of admitted students for each school? Does your list only contain Ivy Plus schools? It’s not enough to pick a bunch of schools you like; you need to really do your research and determine how you compare to the school’s usual applicant pool. Here are some signs that your list is unbalanced and a little too heavy on “reach” schools.

  • Your Test Scores Aren’t Competitive: Often the most obvious sign that a school is a reach is how your test scores compare to the school’s admissions standards and those of admitted students. For example, if the median SAT scores of admitted students at a school is 1470-1570, and your highest SAT score is 1425, you’re far below the middle 50% and might not make it past the first read of your application. If this is true for more than four or five schools on your list – your list is too heavy on reaches. Consider test prep to improve your scores or explore test-optional schools.
  • You’re Putting Prestige Over Fit: Often the temptation to apply to a list heavy on hyper-selective schools is because they are “name brands” and very prestigious institutions. It’s not uncommon for students to be blinded by the possibility of gaining admission to a school with a top reputation that they overlook how unbalanced their college list has become. Take a look at your list and reevaluate why you chose those schools. Is it because they are good fits for you academically, socially, and financially? Or is it because you’re attracted to the school name? If you find yourself more attracted to the reputation of a majority of the schools on your list, your list might be unbalanced and heavy on reaches.
  • You’re Applying to Only Schools with <10% Admit Rates: Let’s be honest – getting into one highly-selective college is hard, much less 10 or 12. While it is entirely possible for students to gain admission to all eight Ivy League schools and Stanford, it’s extremely rare and not a great application strategy if you’re trying to maximize your outcomes at best-fit schools. A school’s selectivity should certainly be taken into consideration when building your college list, and a school with a 5% admit rate is going to be a reach for anyone, so if your list is stacked with them, your list is unbalanced and needs reevaluation. Instead of applying to all hyper-selective schools, narrow down your reaches by determining which are truly the best-fits for you and your goals. Limit yourself to about three best-fit reach colleges and fill the holes in your list with likely and target schools that you really like!
  • You Consider Your “Likely” Schools “Backups”: Often the best sign of an unbalanced college list is not a long list of reach colleges, but rather a short and uninspired list of likely schools. If you find yourself just throwing a few “easy” schools on your list to fill in the likely spots, chances are you’re also not putting great consideration into your reach or target schools as well. Likely schools should be colleges that are good-fits that you’d be happy to attend – not a backup just so you have some acceptances to choose from. Including a few shoo-in schools to guarantee you get in somewhere is often a sign that you’re aiming too high with your reach, or even target schools. If your likely list is an afterthought, your list is likely unbalanced and too heavy on reaches (even if you don’t see them as reaches.) If this is the case, sit down with your college counselor to reevaluate your list so that you’re not only applying to a healthy number of reach schools, but also applying to best-fit likely colleges that you’re just as excited about.

An unbalanced college list can lead to a lot of disappointment come decision day and doesn’t maximize students’ admissions outcomes. It’s important for students to understand their academic profile, admissions requirements, and how they can build a list with a healthy balance of target, reach, and likely schools.

At IvyWise, we work with students to help them gain admission to the best-fit schools for them. Our team of expert counselors are former deans and directors of admission from some of the top schools in the US, and they know how students will be read in the admissions process. We work with students to build balanced college lists of best-fit schools and put together compelling applications in order to have the best chance of admission at all the schools on their list. For more information on our college counseling services, contact us today.