Choosing a college isn’t just a matter of asking yourself where you want to go to school. Sure, in movies and on TV, high school students have that one dream college in mind. Think Rory Gilmore, whose childhood bedroom was covered in Harvard pendants and posters. But how can you make sure that your college application season has a happy ending even if you don’t get into that one dream college?
First, some fun college application facts:
About 1/3 of all students apply to 7 or more colleges
Some private high schools report that their students commonly apply to 20 or more colleges
The College Board recommends that students apply to 4 to 8 colleges
However many colleges you apply to, the most important thing is to apply to a range of safety, target, and reach schools.
The simplest definition of a safety school is a school where you’re almost definitely going to get in. Because safety schools are easier to get into, people tend to think they’re bad schools – not true! There are plenty of colleges that have relatively high admission rates but still have great reputations. For example, Virginia Tech is a top-rated engineering school with a 71% acceptance rate, Auburn University is one of the top colleges in the southeast and has an acceptance rate of 81%, and Purdue University ranks 53rd in the nation and has a 56% admission rate.
When choosing safety schools, look for colleges that share traits with your dream college. For example, maybe your dream is to go to Columbia University – consider some other colleges in the New York City area, such as NYU, Cooper Union, Rutgers, or Fordham. You’d still get the experience of living and studying in New York City at a college that’s a bit easier to get into. Or perhaps your dream is to go study engineering at MIT – consider some other highly regarded engineering schools like Virginia Tech or Purdue.
To ensure that choosing a college has a happy ending for you, apply to at least two safety schools. This way, you’ll have options in case you aren’t accepted at the colleges you’d rather attend – and options are always a good thing.
Target schools also lack the romance of dream schools. A target school is a school where you’re “on target” for admission – your academic profile falls somewhere in the middle of the median for the school, so you’ve got about a 50/50 shot at admission. One caveat, though – schools with low admission rates (below about 20%) aren’t target schools even if your academic profile matches with the school. When the admission rate is that low, getting in is a gamble no matter how strong your academic profile might be.
When choosing colleges to apply to, try to include at least two or three target schools. With luck (and a great application), you’ll get into all of your target schools, but applying to several of them increases your odds of having a range of options to choose from.
Here’s where the romance lies – reach schools are typically dream schools, selective colleges that you can only hope you’ll get into. A reach school is any school that is super selective (admission rate below around 20%) and/or requires an academic profile that’s a little higher than what you’ve got. There’s certainly hope that you’ll get in, especially if you have a really awesome essay and an impressive resume. Apply to as many reach schools as you want! There’s nothing wrong with playing the reach school field. Just make sure that you’ve got a range of safety and target schools as backups, just in case.