Building a College List with Reach, Target, and Safety

Building a College List with Reach, Target, and Safety | Ivy Central

When you are building your college list you will often come across people recommending that you have a mix of reach, target and safety schools in your list. What you are less likely to find is a description of how you can decide which colleges fit into which category, so that is what I am going to do with this blog.

What needs to be appreciated is that what category a particular college falls into will change from one person to the next, apart from the most competitive which are reach for everybody.

Reach Colleges

Colleges that fall into the reach group can be there for a couple of reasons.

There are an increasing number of colleges where the acceptance rate is 3 – 5%, which means that for every one hundred people that apply only 3 – 5 of them will actually be offered a place. What that means is that anybody applying to these colleges is unlikely to be offered a place, but that does not mean it is impossible, some of these colleges will have thousands of new students start in September, but most applicants will not be among them. Knowing this should automatically put these colleges into your reach group of colleges. It is easy enough to find out the acceptance rate of any college but examples would include all of the Ivy League and Stanford. With such a low acceptance rate some people refer to this group as Super Reach.

The other group of reach colleges are those colleges that you love, and dream of attending but you are well below the average scores in key elements of your application, such as standardised tests or GPA. Let’s look at the University of Chicago as an example, nearly all accepted students that submitted a standardised test score had 1500+ in the SAT or between 33 and 36 in the ACT and 64% of applicants had a GPA of over 4. It therefore follows, that if you are presenting with an SAT score of 1450 and a GPA of 3.75, your chances of being accepted are below average and so U Chicago would be a reach college for you.

It is important to state that reach does not mean out of reach, it is still possible to be admitted to reach schools and there are strategies that you can employ to improve your chances. The most common of these strategies is to apply ED to your first choice college. Applying ED to a college means that you commit to attending if offered a place. Colleges like this as it gives them certainty about who will attend and so the admission rates for ED applications are generally 5-10% higher than for regular applications.

Target Colleges

As the term suggests, a target college is one that in normal circumstances you would have a good likelihood of being accepted by. To make that judgement you will need to look at the students the college has previously accepted and match yourself against that data. Every year, at the end of the application round, colleges publish information about the students they have accepted. This information can be found on the individual college websites but collates this information in an easy to find form.

While a reach college would give you up to a 25% chance of acceptance, a target college should be in the range of 25 – 70% chance of acceptance. This is a pretty wide range so when you are selecting which target colleges to apply for look to reflect this range and avoid only applying to colleges where your profile is towards the lower end of the acceptance level.

Safety Colleges

Finally, we come to the safety colleges. We all have times when things don’t go to plan, maybe you have a disaster in your SAT, your GPA is lower than expected, or there is a sudden surge in college applications. Any one of these things could result in you not being accepted by even those target colleges that you have applied to and that is why every college list should contain at least one safety college.

While nothing in life is certain, you should be reasonably certain that you will be accepted by any safety college on your list.

College list strategy

Anybody working in the field of college counselling for any length of time will have tails to tell of students who didn’t follow the advice they were given and ended up applying only to their dream colleges and ended up being rejected by them all. It does happen. Even if you are a high flyer at school and have done some wonderful extracurricular activities you can never guarantee acceptance at any college, especially reach ones. For that reason, it is essential that your final list of colleges should have a mix of reach, target and safety colleges.

So, how many of each type of college should your list contain? Well, that will depend on your individual circumstances. Most of our students at Ivy Central have a limit on the number of colleges their school will let them apply to, normally around a dozen. For those students, a typical mix would be along the lines of two safety, six target and four reach colleges. This is very much a starting point, as the application season progresses we will review the list as early results come out and the balance might change.

One thing to be aware of, if you are applying to the University of California then you can apply for all nine colleges in the system with just one application. For many people, these nine colleges will include reach colleges, such as Berkeley or UCLA, target colleges might include Santa Barbara, Irvine and safety, for example, Riverside or Merced. Just be aware that you should always want to go to any of the colleges you apply for, no matter which category they fall into, your safety college might be the only one that offers you a place!

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