Nothing beats college stress like narrowing down your list! After starting with a rough list of around 20 schools, the next step is to create a balanced final list, which will ensure that you’re ecstatic in the spring!
First, it's helpful to identify one or two sure-fire safety schools where you are assured automatic admission based on your stats. You'll want to choose schools that you genuinely like and that are affordable for your family. (To gauge affordability, you can check a college's average Net Price on the government website College Navigator, or for a more personalized estimate, run the Net Price Calculator on the school's website.)
Next, it's time to identify foundational or likely schools. We recommend that students have four likely schools on their final list. These are the schools where you have a pretty good shot—like around an 80%+ chance of getting in based on your academic profile. How do you determine your odds? Your school counselor or our college search algorithm can help, but you can also get a rough idea by looking at the college’s average GPA and 75th percentile range for SAT/ACT scores. If you’re well above the school’s 75th percentile for scores and your GPA is above average as well, the odds are in your favor as long as the school's overall acceptance rate is over 30% and it's also a good financial fit (many colleges are "need aware" and consider an applicant's ability to pay when making an admissions decision). For a list of schools that don't consider finances when making admissions decisions, check out this awesome Wikipedia page.
Next, we want to select four match or target schools (odds of 50–80%). As a rule of thumb, if your GPA is above a school's average and your test scores are approaching their 75th percentile range, you can likely consider the school a target/match (which means your statistical odds are a bit better than 50/50). A school's overall acceptance rate does need to be above 30% to consider it a true match.
Then there are reaches, which where your personal odds are about 20–40%. For a school to qualify as a reach, your test scores need to be right around or just below the school's 50th percentile range. We recommend that students apply to two reach schools. Any school with an overall acceptance rate below 25% is a reach for everyone. Finally, students usually like to add at least one or two wild cards or far reaches, where your personal odds of admission are around 10–20%. For most students, if test scores are hovering right above the school’s 25th percentile cut-off, the school counts as a reach.
One tip—students typically get better aid when their scores are higher than a college’s average academic profile. So generous schools make the best reaches and wild cards. To determine which schools offer the best financial aid, you can search on the government website College Navigator. Expand the “Net Price” tab to determine the average cost for your family's income range.