It may seem like a no-brainer to start your college search with a list of colleges you’d like to attend, but there are many questions that start to pop up once you actually sit down to create that list.

‘How many colleges should I apply to? Is my GPA good enough? How about my test scores? It’s just a waste of my time applying to so many schools; can’t I just apply to my first choice and wait?’

First, you should know that there’s no one size fits all answer to any of these questions. Some students may be well-served to apply to a dozen schools, while others may have a smaller list. 

Regardless, all students should make it a priority to create a balanced college list no matter how many colleges are on it.

In this blog series, we’ll teach you how to create a balanced college list that’s tailored to your academic record, interests, ambitions, and future goals. Let’s get started!

What is A Balanced College List?

A balanced list of colleges is one that includes schools that can be classified as your “dream schools”, schools that you should target based on your test scores and grades, and schools that you apply to as a “just in case” to give yourself a Plan B should things go wrong.

To determine if a school is a reach, match, or likely school for you, you’ll compare yourself to the average admitted student to see how your chances of being admitted stack up. If a school has an extremely low admission rate (usually under 20%), that school should be considered a wildcard for everyone, meaning a majority of highly qualified applicants will not be admitted simply by virtue of the numbers. Think Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, Amherst for instance. 

To illustrate this concept, we’ll take a fictional student, Charlie, who just started his senior year of high school. An avid golfer, member of the student council, and winner of multiple local engineering awards, Charlie’s academic profile is a 3.9 weighted GPA, a 3.4 unweighted GPA, and a 28 ACT. He has long dreamed of attending a college with a strong undergraduate business program, a beautiful green campus, lots of school spirit and plenty to experience outside of the classroom.

So, knowing these stats about Charlie, how do we create a “balanced” college list? 

Reach Schools

Put simply, reach schools are your dream schools. They’re the universities or colleges with selective admission rates or academic averages slightly out of your reach. When you compare your test scores and GPA to the averages of admitted students to a school and find that your scores are significantly below the average, the college likely belongs in your reach school category.

For Charlie, with his 3.9 WGPA, 3.4 UWGPA, and 28 ACT score, the following schools should be on his reach list:

As you can see, the average student accepted into these schools has academic scores significantly higher than Charlie. While his chances of being accepted into these schools are low, since academics are also no longer the sole factor in admission for many colleges, we don’t consider Charlie’s chance of admission to these schools impossible.

Many schools, especially elite and prestigious schools, have transitioned to using a holistic approach to college admissions. This means that a student’s entire background, circumstances, and achievements are considered alongside their academic record, as well as their essays, letters of recommendation, and often, the extent of their demonstrated interest. Therefore, while your academics may not meet a school’s averages, you shouldn’t feel discouraged from applying to your reach schools. There is a chance that your non-academic talents, skills, and achievements are just what the school is looking for in potential students. 

Match Schools

Your list of match schools should consist of the colleges and universities where your academic record places you comfortably in the average of accepted students, or even slightly above average. These are the schools where, if you cross your T’s and dot your I’s, you will have a solid chance of being admitted. 

Taking another look at Charlie, we find him with this reasonable list of match schools:

You’ll notice that one of Charlie’s schools on his match list may seem out of place: Clemson’s scores average a bit higher than his. However, this is where Charlie’s personal preferences and situation come into play. He’s very interested in and a great fit for one of Clemson’s unique academic programs and his college counselor believes his extracurricular record gives him an advantage that makes Clemson a challenging, yet realistic target school.

As you can see, academics is not the only thing you can consider when making your balanced college list. 

However, the key to making a useful college list is being realistic. Work with your college counselor to create a list of match colleges that makes sense for you and your academic record. While you can lean on your extracurriculars and essay-writing skills somewhat when applying to your match schools, your academic averages should not vary drastically from the averages. Having a school or two where your academic scores are on the low end of the average is fine for your match list, but take care to be honest when evaluating your own chances.

Likely Schools

Likely schools are Plan B, the extra option that every student should have in their back pocket. While the college admission process can be simplified, it can’t be approached with certainty. In an ideal world, if everything goes according to plan, you’d receive several acceptances from your match school list, and maybe even a surprise acceptance from your reach list!

However, we know life rarely goes to plan and given the holistic nature of admissions, nothing is guaranteed. Charlie has accounted for this by choosing likely schools where his ACT and GPA should easily land him admission:

If Charlie receives admission into at least one of these, he’ll be happy. He selected likely schools with similar characteristics to those on his reach and match list, along with academic programs he would enjoy. 

It’s important to note that you should choose likely schools you’d be genuinely happy to attend in order to keep yourself from feeling like you’re “settling” should you end up at one.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this blog series where we guide you through creating your balanced list.