If you have researched the college application process, you may have heard about the concept of a “target school.” What is a target school or college? Simply put, it's a college that you are likely — but not guaranteed — to be admitted to based on your qualifications.
In this article, I'll define and explain the concept of a target school. Furthermore, I’ll discuss how to identify your target colleges and determine how many of these schools you should apply to.
What Is a Target School?
A target college is one in which your academic credentials make you competitive for admission. Your GPA, standardized test scores, and class rank fall within the average range for that particular school. You have a very reasonable chance of gaining admission to a target school, but there are no guarantees.
Generally, you have about a 30%-80% chance of gaining admission to a target college based on your academic resume and the school’s acceptance rate. Schools to which you have less than a 30% chance of gaining admission are reach schools, and schools to which you have greater than an 80% chance of gaining admission are safety schools.
Because this range is relatively large, you can further divide your target colleges into two categories: high target/borderline reach schools (30%-50% odds of admission) and low target/borderline safety schools (50%-80% odds of admission).
Here are a couple of hypothetical examples to illustrate these concepts.
Claudia has a 3.9 weighted GPA, 610 Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and 690 Math SAT Scores, and she's interested in applying to the University of San Diego, a private Catholic college in San Diego, California.
Claudia’s GPA is slightly higher than USD’s average GPA of 3.89, and her SAT score is also a bit higher than USD’s average of 630 Math score, although it's a little lower than its average 630 EBRW score. Furthermore, USD’s admission rate is 50%. Claudia would have a very reasonable chance of gaining admission to USD, but due to its relatively low acceptance rate, she shouldn’t be overly confident. USD would be a target school for Claudia.
Matt has a 3.5 weighted GPA and got a 23 on his ACT. Would the University of Oregon be a target college for Matt?
Yes. The University of Oregon has an average GPA of 3.55 and an average ACT score of 25. Even though his GPA and ACT score are slightly below average for the University of Oregon, the University of Oregon’s acceptance rate is 83%. Matt’s credentials would make him a competitive applicant, and the University of Oregon would be a target school for Matt.
For most public colleges, being an in-state or out-of-state student shouldn't have much impact on your odds of gaining admission. In recent years, though, there has been discussion that public universities have become more eager to admit out-of-state students.
University of Oregon (Rick Obst/Flickr)
Your GPA and standardized test scores are usually the two most important components of your application, but they’re not your only credentials that are considered when determining whether or not you gain admission.
Colleges may also consider other factors like your recommendations, SAT Subject Test scores, the rigor of your course load, your personal essay, your extracurricular activities, any substantial obstacles you've had to overcome, and whether you’ll increase diversity on campus. Outside of your GPA and test scores, these other factors can strengthen your application.
However, your GPA and standardized test scores are typically the most important factors, and they can help you easily determine your competitiveness for a particular school.
How to Identify Your Target Schools
Now that you understand the concept of a target college, I'll discuss how you should go about identifying your target colleges.
Step 1: Create Your List of Dream Schools
Initially, don’t worry too much about your odds of getting in when creating your list of dream schools. In my experience, most students are pretty realistic about where they stand. It's rare that a student with a 2.5 GPA will create a list of all Ivy League schools. If your initial list has too many reach schools, you can adjust it later.
Learn how to choose a college, and research colleges extensively to determine the schools you want to go to. Use the best college search websites, college finders, and ranking lists to help you find the colleges that would be great for you.
Seek advice from others. If possible, talk to your teachers, counselors, current college students and admissions representatives to help determine which colleges would be a good fit for you.
After doing your research, I recommend having an initial list of 8-15 schools. You won’t necessarily be applying to all of these schools, but at this point, a list of fewer schools may not be giving you enough options, and if you have more schools, you probably haven’t done enough to narrow down your college search, and you may need to do more research.
Step 2: Determine Which of Schools From Your List Are on Target
Use the PrepScholar database to help determine which of the schools from your list are target colleges. You can google “(name of school) prepscholar admissions requirements” to find a school profile for each college on your list. On the school profile, use the admissions calculator to get a rough idea of your chances of admission.The admissions calculator combines your GPA and standardized test scores with the admissions rate to approximate your chances of getting into the school.
If, according to the admissions calculator, you have between a 30% and 80% chance of gaining admission, you should categorize the college as on target. If the school has less than a 15% acceptance rate, you should categorize the school as a reach regardless of your GPA and standardized test scores. The school is so selective that you can’t be confident that you’ll get in regardless of your academic credentials.
What Should You Do If Your Dream Schools Are All Reach Schools?
You should divide the list of schools you apply to between reach schools, target schools, and safety schools. You want to give yourself options and try to gain admission to competitive schools.
Initially, some students, when they first identify their dream schools, select too many reach schools. Because your likelihood of gaining admission to reach schools is very low, you should identify less competitive schools that possess the attributes you like in your reach schools to apply to as well.
For example, let’s assume that you have a 4.2 weighted GPA and got a 34 on your ACT. Your dream school is Harvard, primarily because you really want to go to a selective private college in the greater Boston area. Even though your GPA and ACT score would make you competitive for admission to Harvard, Harvard’s acceptance rate is only 4.6%. Therefore, regardless of your credentials, Harvard will be a reach for you.
However, with your GPA and ACT score, some of your target colleges could be Tufts University and Boston College, both of which are selective private colleges in the greater Boston area. If you’re thorough in identifying why you like certain schools, that will be helpful for you if you need to find target schools.
How Many Target Schools Should You Apply To?
There’s no exact number of target colleges that you should apply to. For most students, I recommend applying to about ⅓ target schools, ⅓ reach schools, and ⅓ safety schools. Generally, I think applying to 6-12 colleges is good to give yourself options without going overboard. Therefore, applying to about 2-5 target colleges is a reasonable number.
Students who are extremely eager to go to selective colleges can apply to mostly reach and target schools. However, make sure you apply to at least a couple of safety schools to ensure you have choices given a worst-case scenario.
If you're primarily interested in attending schools that qualify as safety schools for you, you don't have to apply to more than a couple of colleges. However, I do encourage you to at least consider more selective colleges before you finalize your list of schools.
- A target college is a school in which your credentials make you competitive for admission, and you have a decent chance of being accepted to that college (roughly 30%-80%).
- Identify target schools by doing extensive college research and knowing the traits that you like in your reach schools.
- Use the PrepScholar database to determine if a school is on target for you.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.