Building a Balanced List (Reach, Targets and Likelies)

It’s the time of year when junior should be building their college list, doing their research, and visiting schools. Yet the competitive nature of top-tier admissions has made assessing the likelihood of admission more challenging. Students are applying to more and more colleges, making them increasingly selective (we explain why applying to more than 10 schools is a bad idea here). While the highly ranked schools are getting more competitive, eight percent of US colleges still admit eighty percent or more of their applications. Its important that any college list have two to three schools a student is excited to attend, but also confident they will be admitted.

Students should begin by thinking about what they want to study or if they are going to need a program that helps them explore majors while at college. They can then use a college planning website like Collegeboard’s My Big Future, Naviance, Scoir, Cappex or CollegeXpress to search for schools. These sites typically let you search by major, size, location and features like religion or greek life. Students can then explore further reading student ratings on, or in the Fiske Guide, and on Princeton

If your school uses Naviance or Scoir, both sites have scattergrams that allow you to plot where you fall compared to students in your high school who were admitted, denied or waitlisted. This can help you understand if a school is a likely, target or reach. Each school also publishes a common data set with the percentage of applications admitted, gpa ranges and middle 50% test scores. College Board publishes this data on the admissions tab of each school’s profile on their website. Any school that admits less than 20% of their applicants is a reach. If you fall near the top end of a school’s admitted students, its probably a likely. When in doubt, assume a school is a target or a reach so you don’t get your hopes set on any one school. It is important to understand if a school admits by major and which are the most competitive majors (usually engineering, computer science, biology, media/film and business). If you are applying to a competitive major, the school should also be considered a reach.

A school mailing you a brochure or sending you an email does not mean you are likely to be admitted. Many colleges market heavily to increase their applications (only to reject students to increase their selectivity and help them move up in the rankings). Other schools have limited recruitment budgets. But if you are interested in a school, make sure to open their emails, visit and connect with staff to demonstrate interest. Some schools weigh your interest in the admissions decision process.

If you need help building your college list or evaluating your likelihood of admission, schedule a meeting with Coffman Consulting to discuss your options. We are happy to help.

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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