With almost 4,000 colleges to choose from across the country, you may be asking yourself, "What colleges should I apply to?" How do you narrow thousands of schools down to just ten?The best way to streamline your college list is to divide it roughly equally between safety schools, match schools, and reach schools.
This guide will go over exactly what these terms mean and how to choose the best schools for you. Before taking you through the process step by step, let’s review the research process as a whole.
Making Your College List: Full Process
This guide will go over a few important points, all for the purpose of helping you make your college list. Ultimately, your mission is to choose a few safety schools, a few match schools, and a few reach schools.
First, you must understand what colleges are looking for in their applicants. To make your list, you should focus most on your GPA and SAT or ACT scores.
Grades and scores typically aren’t the only important pieces of your application, but they’re sufficient to give you an estimate of your admissions chances. Once you know what your college expects, you can use PrepScholar's admissions calculator to see how your credentials stack up.
This guide will go over each step of this process, starting with an explanation of how colleges evaluate candidates. As you read, keep in mind your primary mission: to make your ideal college list.
What Determines Your Chances of Getting Into College?
If you’ve started down the college admissions road, then you probably have a good sense of what colleges look for in applicants. Most colleges fall into one of two categories when it comes to admissions decisions, those that use assured admissions and those that take a holistic approach. Read on to learn about both.
Assured admissions are pretty much based solely on grades and test scores. If you have a minimum SAT or ACT score and GPA, then the college will let you in. Oklahoma State and Washington State are two schools that use assured admissions.
Several others offer assured admission for in-state residents, including state schools in California, Iowa, Missouri, Mississippi, Texas, and Nevada. If you live out of state, then other factors will become important too.
Many other colleges take a holistic approach. In addition to your grades and test scores, they consider your extracurricular involvements, community service, and any internships, as well as the academic and personal qualities that come through your recommendation letters and personal essay. These colleges are seeking to get to know the “whole person,” including his/her interests and goals.
Because these other elements come into play, it’s tough to make an exact prediction of whether or not you’ll get into a school. Competitive schools, like those in the Ivy League, can especially be a gamble.
Even if you can’t know for sure whether you’ll get accepted, you can still estimate your chances of admission based on your GPA and SAT or ACT scores. Before delving into how to do this, let’s review why estimating your chances is a key part of making your college list.
Colleges that use holistic admissions go beyond the numbers to learn about you from lots of different angles.
Estimating Your Chances of Admission
By understanding what colleges look for in their applicants, you can figure out which schools qualify as safety, match, or reach schools for you. You can focus on the average SAT/ACT scores and GPA of accepted students, while keeping in mind the other factors that come into play for holistic admissions schools.
If your own scores and GPA are much higher than those of the average accepted student, then you might consider the school a safety. If the reverse is true, then it might be a reach school.
To help you more precisely estimate your chances, we've developed a handy admissions calculator. Before showing you how to use it to make your list, let’s go over the different ways you can research your colleges of interest.
How Can You Find Data on Your Prospective Colleges?
To estimate your chances of getting in, you should compare your grades and test scores to that of the average accepted student. So where can you find this information?
There are three main sources: college search engines, official college websites, and PrepScholar’s college database. Let’s start with the search engines.
1. Use College Search Engines
When you first start to research schools, college search engines can be your best friend. They let you set various filters, like GPA, test scores, location, and college size, to learn about schools.
You can set as many or as few filters as you like and then explore what comes up. As you read, research, and perhaps visit campuses, you’ll start to narrow down your list to the top contenders. After using search websites, you might compile a list of 20 schools or so.
Of course, sending 20 applications would take a lot of time and money, so you probably want to narrow it down to your top eight or nine. By taking a closer look at the schools’ expectations, you can further narrow down your list. Find out more about each school on its official website and PrepScholar’s database of schools.
2. Check Out the Official College Admissions Websites
Your college research is sure to lead you to your college’s website pretty quickly. You can learn a lot about a college on its website, especially its admissions section.
Most colleges publish data on the average GPA and SAT/ACT scores of accepted students each year. To find this info directly, you could try searching for “college name + average SAT scores” or “college name + average GPA.”
To give you one example, the following graphic is lifted from NYU’s website. It shows the average GPA, SAT (math), and ACT of incoming freshmen.
Every admissions site is different, and some only offered limited information. To find this data right away, head on over to PrepScholar’s database. Not only will you find information on your schools, but you’ll also find the admissions calculator to estimate your chances!
3. PrepScholar’s Database and Admissions Calculator
PrepScholar has a streamlined way for you to find the average test scores and GPA for your colleges. Simply search for the name of your college of interest plus PrepScholar to find this information, along with all the other application requirements.
For instance, here’s PrepScholar’s information on NYU’s average SAT scores.
In addition to learning what scores and grades you need, you can also use PrepScholar’s admissions calculator to estimate your chances. Simply input your grades and test scores. The example below shows the admissions chances of a student with a 2020 SAT score and 3.7 GPA.
As you can see, a student with a 2020 on the SAT and 3.7 GPA has almost a 32% chance of admission. Of course, this is just an estimate as other factors come into play for a school like NYU that uses holistic admissions.
As mentioned at the beginning of the guide, figuring out your admissions chances is a key step in making your college list. By understanding your chances, you can narrow down your list into safety, match, and reach schools.
Read on for a precise definition of each and the steps for finding yours.
Like a pup in his security blanket, make yourself comfortable by applying to two to three safety schools.
What’s a Safety School?
Making your college list requires you to do some research on the colleges you’re interested in. Once you have a sense of their requirements, you can sort them into safety, match, and reach schools.
Let’s start with your safeties. You might choose two to three safety schools for your final list. A safety school is one where your academic credentials are much stronger than those of the average accepted student.
You feel relatively confident that you’ll get accepted. You might have an 80% or higher chance of admission, an estimate you can make with our admissions calculator.
As you saw above, some schools have assured admissions for all applicants or in-state residents. If you have one of these on your list, then you could consider it a safety school.
Safety schools usually aren’t your first choice, but they should still be schools that you’d be happy to attend. So how can you go through the research process discussed above to find your two to three safety schools?
How to Find Your Safety Schools
As discussed above, you can look for information on your college’s official website and PrepScholar’s database. Let’s say, just to give an example, that you’re interested in the University of Mississippi.
On its official website, you’ll find this information about regular admission:
If you’re a resident of Mississippi and meet the GPA and test score requirement, then you have automatic acceptance (aka, assured admission). If this describes you, then you can definitely consider the University of Mississippi to be a safety school.
If this doesn’t describe you or you still want to find more information, then you can consult PrepScholar’s database. You’ll find that the average GPA for the University of Mississippi is 3.46, the average SAT ranges from 980 to 1190 (excluding the Writing section), and ACT scores range from 21 to 27.
Let’s say you’ve got a 1200 on your SAT and a 3.6 GPA. Plug in these stats to calculate your admissions chances, like so:
As you can see, a student with these scores and GPA has an 81.33% chance of getting accepted. Since that’s greater than 80%, this student can consider the University of Mississippi to be a safety school.
Go through this process and use the admissions calculator to find two to three safety schools where your chances of getting in are 80% or greater. Next, you can choose two to three match schools.
Pick a match, but not just any match. Also, what kind of magic trick is this? Looks dangerous.
What’s a Match School?
Match schools, also known as on target schools, are schools where you have a good, but not guaranteed, chance of getting accepted. Your academic credentials line up with those of the average accepted student.
While your safety schools might not be your first choice, match schools are typically ones you’d be excited to attend. So how can you pick out your match schools?
These should be the schools where you have somewhere between a 30% and 80% chance of admission. Those on the lower end may be borderline reach schools, while those on the higher end are borderline safeties.
Read on for a step-by-step example of finding a match school.
How to Find Your Match Schools
As mentioned above, you could consider a college to be a match school if you have between a 30% and 80% chance of getting in. Research your colleges’ requirements and head over to PrepScholar’s admissions calculator to estimate your chances.
For instance, here’s a student interested in Purdue University. She has a 3.5 GPA and 1700 SAT score. So what are her chances of getting in?
With this GPA and SAT score, the student has about a 39% chance of getting in. Remember that other factors come into play, so her extracurriculars, essay, and recommendation letters might boost (or weaken) her chances.
Choose about three match schools across this range of 30% to 80% chance of admission. Once you've done that, you can finish your college list with a few reach schools.
The final spots on your college list are reserved for reaches. This kid's actually reaching for a frisbee, not a college application. He's ten.
What’s a Reach School?
Once you’ve selected your safety and on target schools, you can pick a few reach schools. Often, reach schools are the ones that you aspire to and would love to attend, but can’t count on the fact that you’ll get in.
Ivy League schools, by the way, should be considered a reach for just about any student, even if you have a perfect GPA and SAT/ACT score. Beyond the Ivies, you might consider any school where you have a 30% or less chance of getting in to be a reach school.
For reach schools, the credentials of the average accepted student are stronger than yours. At the same time, they’re not so much higher than you have zero shot of getting accepted.
Let’s go through an example of researching a reach school.
How to Find Your Reach Schools
Reach schools will make up the last one-third of your college list. In this next example, let’s consider Boston University. BU accepted students average a 3.59 GPA and 2080 SAT.
A student with a 3.5 GPA and 1800 has about a 20% chance of getting in. Her chances aren’t impossible, but they’re certainly not guaranteed.
While you should carefully craft all your college applications, you especially want to make a strong showing to reach schools. If your grades and test scores fall below expectations, then you should consider how you can present other aspects of your candidacy to give you an edge.
Once you’ve chosen your reach schools, you should be just about finished with your college list! You’ll have about two to three each of safety schools, match schools, and reach schools.
While your chances of getting accepted will help you narrow down your list, there are several other considerations when picking your colleges. Let’s review a few of the most important.
In addition to estimating your chances of getting accepted, make sure to research financial aid! Some colleges these days seem to think this is what the average student's dorm room looks like.
Making Your College List: 3 Extra Tips
So far, this guide has mainly focused on the hard data of picking schools. To help you make concrete choices about your safety, match, and reach schools, you can focus on the numbers: average SAT/ACT scores, average GPA, and your chances of admission.
Beyond estimating your chances, you should also consider other factors when making your college list. There are a number of factors to think about, but for the purposes of this guide, let’s focus on three main tips.
Consider Financial Aid
Financial aid is a huge factor for many students. If you’re one of them, then it should definitely factor into your application plans.
In addition to figuring out your chances of admissions, research your schools’ financial aid policies. While you can’t always predict what your financial aid package will look like, you can get a sense of how much each school will meet demonstrated financial need.
If you get in and can’t afford to attend, then the notions of safety, match, and reach schools are irrelevant. Make sure your schools represent realistic options. On a similar note, make sure that all the schools on your list are ones that you’d be reasonably happy to attend.
Only Apply to Schools That You’d Like to Attend
While your excitement about schools is sure to vary, you should still be reasonably excited about all of them. Students sometimes treat safety schools as throwaways, but that approach is unwise.
Your safeties are on your list for a reason, and you don’t want to end up feeling stuck or without options. There are tons of schools throughout the country. If you haven’t found at least two to three safeties, match, and reach schools that you like, then keep looking!
Find Your Best Fit
Finally, a lot of other factors go into your college search than estimating your chances of admission. When you start using college search engines, you’ll start to think about what you’re looking for, in terms of school size, location, majors, extracurricular offerings, or even internship or study abroad opportunities.
While you might not be sure what you plan to do or study, you should still take advantage of this time to self-reflect. Consider what excites you and what you like to study and do.
Some students are swayed by a school’s reputation or prestige, but they should consider the level of fit even more seriously. Fit is a two-way street. Find a place where you think you’ll enjoy studying and living for the next four years of your life!
In closing, let’s go over the key points to remember about making your college list.
As long as you do your research, you can feel confident about your college list!
Conclusion: What Colleges Should I Apply To?
There’s no magic number of colleges to apply to, but a good total for most students is between eight and ten. About one-third of these can be safety schools, one-third can be match schools, and the remaining one-third can be reach schools.
To figure out your safeties, matches, and reaches, you should research your chances of admission. PrepScholar’s admissions calculator offers a great way to plug in your GPA and test scores and estimate your chances.
Over 80% chance of admission qualifies as a safety, between 30% and 80% falls into a match school, and under 30% is a reach. Highly selective schools, like the Ivies, are pretty much reaches for everyone, even students with perfect grades and test scores.
By taking advantage of data and the admissions calculator, you can gain a realistic understanding of your chances and put together a well-researched college list. Once you have your schools chosen, you can focus on putting together the strongest application you can!
What other factors go into choosing a college? If you’re wondering which college you should attend, check out this great guide on how to choose!
Will you be applying for financial aid? This comprehensive guide takes you through the FAFSA application process, step by step.
Are college applications a financial burden for you? Learn about how you can get a college application fee waiver here.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.