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How to Create a College List (Part one)

I love to look up at the night sky and observe the asymmetrical symmetry of the universe. How much less appealing would it be if everything on the left were exactly the same as everything on the right? So, imagine how upsetting it must be to me when I see a student’s college list made up of equal parts safety, target, and reach schools. What is the reasoning behind this other than to make a list look balanced? Perhaps it is an easy statement for counselors to make that you should have an equal number of colleges across the admissions difficulty spectrum. But it is simply lazy thinking with no basis in logic or strategy. It is just a convenient catch-all concept that makes creating a college list much easier and increases the number of acceptances, thereby enhancing a statistical analysis of a counselor’s rate of success. Why do I say this? Because there is simply no other explanation for having the same number of safety schools as target and reach schools. After all, the theory behind a safety school is that you are likely to get in. Safeties are not schools you want to go to; they are schools that you can go to if you don’t get in anywhere else. So why on Earth would you include so many safeties on your list when 1) you are likely to get into several of them, and 2) you don’t want to go to any of them?

Listen, filling out and submitting applications are time consuming and expensive activities. There is simply no logic to having as many safety schools as reach schools. It makes so much more sense to have more reach schools than safety schools. After all, you only need one acceptance from a reach school to make your college admission experience a successful one. Who cares about the rejections? We only care about the acceptances. So, for example, if you want to apply to 15 schools, my recommendation is that you apply to seven reaches, five targets and three safeties. And if you only want to apply to 10 schools, I suggest that you apply to five reaches, three targets, and two safeties.

Furthermore, each and every one of the schools that you apply to should be one where you would feel comfortable attending. Of course, you would prefer to go to a reach school, but you should be comfortable with every school on your list. It makes no sense to apply to a school that you know you will not go to or be happy at. In terms of what makes you happy, that is a deep and broad discussion that will be covered in subsequent articles. There are a large number of factors that you go into your choice of which schools make your list. These factors include geography, size, student culture, orientation (liberal arts or university, for example), choice of majors, cost, affiliations, research opportunities, study abroad opportunities, and campus life.

In part two, we will discuss identifying your personal college priorities