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With thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, it can be daunting to determine where you’ll ultimately apply. As you consider factors like size, location, setting, programs of study, unique opportunities for students, general atmosphere and cost, you’ll also set yourself up for the most positive outcomes by ensuring that your college list is both balanced and intentional.

Balance in a college list refers to admissions probability. Applying to nine prestigious schools with sub-20% acceptance rates and one “safety” school you don’t really want to attend is likely to set you up for disappointment. The odds don’t work in your favor with this approach, and multiple rejections are no picnic. (From experience, we have seen that even when they apply to a school clear-eyed about its ultra-low admission rate, students generally underestimate the hard feelings a denial can bring!)

A stronger strategy that we encourage for students is to build your list from the foundation up:

  1. Find at least three schools you would be excited to attend where you are likely to gain admission. These schools, where your academic profile is significantly stronger than that of the school’s middle 50% of freshmen, make up the foundation of your college list.
  1. From there, you can add several “target” schools that excite you. These are schools where your academic profile is in line with the middle 50%; your overall chance of getting in is roughly equivalent to the school’s acceptance rate.
  1. Carefully select any “reach” schools where you want to apply. These are traditionally defined as those where your academic profile is in the bottom 25% for admitted freshmen. You could be admitted, but there are longer odds. However, with so many of today’s highly selective schools posting admission rates under 20% and even in the single digits, admission at these has become truly unpredictable – essentially qualifying as a “reach” for everyone.

It’s also important to be intentional in your decisions. For every college on your list, you’ll want to be able to articulate a specific purpose for including it and why it’s a great fit for you – and the reason should have nothing to do with prestige.

Other factors to consider in shaping your list:

  • If cost is of concern, you may want to add a “financial safety” school: one where your admission is likely and where the net price calculator reveals a price that works for you and your family. A frequent choice is an in-state college with higher admission rates than the state flagship.
  • Do take into consideration that certain majors at a given school (typically computer science, engineering, business, nursing, biological sciences) often have lower acceptance rates than the overall rates published by the college, because of the high demand for these programs. Colleges may not typically publicize these admission rates, but you’ll want to be aware of the trend and choose carefully.

Remember that a school’s prestige doesn’t always mean you’ll receive a measurably higher quality of education. A college’s academic and social fit – as well as your approach to college – are much more likely to determine your experience.