How do you determine if you might be admissible to a college?

Terms like “reach school” and “safety school” often get tossed around during the college planning process. How does a student identify whether or not they may be admissible to a particular college? Here are a few resources and tips to figure out what might be your target schools.

The best place to learn about a college is that college itself. Start on the college website. Look under admissions and applying. Usually there is information about criteria they consider including high school coursework (often listing specific courses they require), essays, SAT or ACT scores or if they are test-optional, deadlines and more. Some schools will share a profile of the students admitted the year before, or at least the middle 50% of that pool (the middle 50% is the bulk of the applicant pool but 25% of students had stats higher than in that range and 25% had lower–although those could be athletes or other special populations).

Every college that receives federal financial aid is required to report their admission data to the federal government. You can access this data at the National Center for Educational Statistics. Select schools to compare and download data on SAT, GPA, and the number of applications. An easier way to do this is on the Collegeboard website. In the search bar put a school that interests you, select that school from the list that appears, then click the applying tab on the left side.

You will see the number of applications received, how many were admitted and how many enrolled. If they offer decision deadlines/programs like Early Action or Early Decision, you may also see the numbers for each of these deadlines. If you scroll further you will see several tabs. Click the academics and gpa (then scroll down) and you will see the rank and grade point averages of admitted students. You can do the same for SAT and ACT. Please note that with so many schools going test-optional, many students are electing to not use their test scores. Those who send scores tend to have high scores which is driving up some of the middle 50% ranges. Collegeboard also lists the classes these colleges require and recommend but make sure you check that information is accurate on the college’s own website.

If your stats fall into the middle 50% of the school, then you are likely a good candidate for admission–you are similar to the profile of student that has been admitted in the past. Applicant pools grow and change–schools may win a national championship in a sport which brings in tons of new applicants, or they may have a scandal that causes people not to apply. Admission is never guaranteed. But if you are similar to the last class (have the right classes, gpa, rank, scores) its a “target school”. If you fall well above the middle 50%, then you will likely be admitted. This is a safety school. This may be a school were you are also a strong candidate for merit aid. If you fall just below the middle 50%, then this might be a reach school for you. If you are significantly below the middle 50% or are missing any required classes, you will likely not be admitted.

Some schools offer admission programs called Early Decision or Early Action. They typically involve applying earlier, by a November 1 deadline (but check school’s for their deadline). Using these programs is a way to indicate to schools they are one of your top choices. Early Decision is binding–which means if you apply and are admitted you are expected to attend (but you may not know your financial aid yet so make sure you are willing to pay whatever it costs). If admitted Early Decision, you are supposed to withdraw applications to any other college. Early Action is not binding. You still apply early but can go through the financial aid process or apply to other schools before you have to make a final decision. Applying Early Action can help admission, but isn’t a guaranteed way to strengthen your application. If you can have your application materials together and they are a strong reflection of your ability, there is no downside to applying early. To make things complicated Ivy Leagues have now created restricted Early Action which is basically binding. If you are applying to an Ivy or highly selective school, be aware of their admission program restrictions before you apply.

We recommend having only 1 or 2 reach schools. The majority of your applications should go to target schools where you know you are a strong candidate and at least 1 or 2 safety schools. Do not apply anywhere you don’t want to go. If it ends up being your only option, you want to be excited to attend not disappointed. There is no perfect number of schools to which you should apply. But application fees range from free to $90, so it can get expensive. 5-10 applications is a typical range.

If you need help conducting your college search or research, please let us know. We are currently accepting new sophomore and junior year clients and a limited number of high school seniors.

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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