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What Makes a Great College List?

By Tasha, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor and former Admissions Officer at University of Southern California

Applying to college is no small feat, but deciding where to apply can be an even bigger undertaking. There are just under 4,000 degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the U.S. That’s a lot of different schools to choose from spread out throughout the entire country. Looking at a list of schools could quickly evoke decision paralysis, so it’s easy to understand why prospective college students might feel overwhelmed when it comes time to narrow down where they want to apply.

This is why we boast a tried-and-true strategy that allows students to make a strong college list and apply to a reasonable number of best-fit schools. The first step is including reach, target, and likely schools on your list by researching and thoroughly considering each of the following factors.

How to Create a Reach, Target, and Likely List

Learning how to build a balanced college list takes strategy, self-reflection, and, as always, research. Your list should include three categories: reach, target, and likely schools.

  • Reach: A reach school includes the most competitive colleges and universities out there. Generally, any school that admits less than 25% of applicants should be considered a reach school.
  • Target: Target schools are colleges whose admitted student population has similar academic profiles to your own. These will be schools where you have a genuinely good chance of admission.
  • Likely: Your list should also include at least two likely schools — sometimes also known as “safety schools.” Likely schools are those where you will likely be offered admission based on the school’s higher admission rates and an average academic profile less competitive your own academic record.

Once you start researching the admitted student profiles of each institution on your list, you may find that a college you initially considered a target school is actually a reach school (or vice versa). A truly balanced list will also require quite a bit of soul-searching and self-reflection to figure out exactly what you’re looking for in your college experience. You may have to dig to find true likely schools to which you are excited to apply. With increasing selectivity nowadays, you want to ensure an acceptance from at least one college you would be excited about attending and adding likely schools to your list is a reliable way to do this.

Variety and Consistency in Your College List

Depending on your interests and academic goals, a great college list should include a combination of variety and consistency, but how can you be both varied and consistent?

Let’s say you know you want to pursue engineering but are unsure where you want to study. You’re from the East Coast and part of you wants to stay close to home while another part of you is interested in moving to the West Coast. What do you do?

This is why consistency and variety may both be important. In this case, you would be consistent in prioritizing schools with engineering programs on your balanced college list. At the same time, you may want to create a college list with geographic variety — including schools on both the East Coast and the West Coast.

Meanwhile, you may be a student that knows exactly what you want. Knowing for sure that you want to study fine arts in California, for example, will help easily narrow down your college list and make it very consistent. Then, you will need to make sure your list is still balanced, including a variety of likely schools, in addition to reach and target.

Consider Culture and Fit

Finally, it’s very important to consider culture and fit — in addition to academic programs and priorities — when creating a great college list. If an urban campus is very important to you, consider applying only to urban campuses. It’s also possible that you’re interested in applying to both large and small schools. In this case, make sure that your college list includes schools that range in terms of student population size. If you want to guarantee the option to ultimately choose what size school you attend, make sure the likely portion of your list includes schools in a variety of sizes.

A Great College List Is at Your Fingertips

Remember, creating a great college list is completely within reach. By doing your own research, which may include attending virtual and in-person information events and campus tours, you will have what you need to create a great — and balanced — college list. For additional expert support, you may want to consider working with an IvyWise counselor who has the know-how and the experience to help you craft an excellent college list. Contact us today for more information on how we can help you build a balanced college list of best-schools where you will be successful and happy.

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