Building a college list that works

College admissions, two words that have the power to induce fear and panic in students and parents alike. Parents worry about how to afford the ever rising tuition and students anxiously await their admission decisions after endless essays, score reporting, and application submissions. This dreaded rite of passage has become a tradition for many families as parents long for a simpler time, when they applied to only a couple colleges by paper application. Even though the process can be overwhelming and often overly complicated, there are some important steps to remember that make this stress inducing season a little easier on all parties.

The first step in the arduous journey is to start preparing early with career exploration through electives, extracurriculars, summer programs, shadowing, and internships when appropriate. Students should start ruling in what they enjoy in terms of a career and ruling out what they feel confident is not a suitable career option for them. Once your student starts identifying their interests it is important to rule out options.

Reach schools are classified as such for a variety of reasons. The most common is that the school’s incoming freshman class’s average metrics like GPA and test scores are higher than those held by the applicant. The second most common reason is that the school is highly competitive and selective for everyone regardless of metrics. The threshold can vary, but you can feel confident in a reach school designation if the percent of students admitted is less than 30%. I have students with a perfect GPA, ranked number 1 in their class and near perfect test scores who want to attend an Ivy League or Hidden Ivy school and we have to categorize it as a reach school because of the single digit admission percentages. I cannot stress this enough but it is absolutely imperative to remain as objective, realistic, and pragmatic as possible when making these distinctions about all the colleges on their list.

An applicant will have similar, if not a little higher, grades and scores than the average metrics of the school’s incoming freshman class to earn a target school designation. Selectivity can play a role, especially if a school is in the 30-50% acceptance range. Most target schools will fall in the 40-70% acceptance range. Students will have a better chance of gaining admission and their opportunities for merit based financial aid dramatically increase at target schools because they can set themselves apart with their grades, test scores, course rigor, passion projects, work experience and leadership positions. 

Safety schools are those that have an average incoming class’s metrics significantly below the applicant’s metrics. They usually need to be in the least selective designation which is above 70% acceptance. Safety schools not only offer the best chances at gaining admission, but also at merit based financial aid. A student’s unique resume assists in setting them apart at safety schools as well. 

Now there are a myriad of other factors like in-state auto-admission policies to public institutions in various states like Texas and California, along with other states that offer preference to in-state applicants. These are often important factors, but tend to be the exceptions rather than the rules. 

The key to really building a solid college list is not only understanding how the categorizations work, but also ensuring you have an adequate number of schools that fall within each category. I recommend a minimum of 2-3 in each category because as in life nothing is guaranteed and we want to ensure the student has options and a great university to attend in the fall. Our focus as a society is usually on the reach schools, but the target and safety categories are actually just as, if not more, important because those provide the best opportunities for a debt free education.


Ashly Jordan is the founder of My Education Connections. Ashly is a former science teacher on a mission to help students and families make informed decisions about college choice and major selection. She has helped students all over the country into top universities like MIT, and is passionate about finding the best fit for each individual student. She founded My Education Connections, LLC because she believes education is the key success, and it is possible to obtain an excellent education without the massive debt. When she is not helping clients plan for their future, she is probably watching Netflix, golfing with her husband, or spending time with her niece in her hometown of Las Vegas, NV. 

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