Written by: Aatina K. Shaikh
Disclaimer: This article was originally published in September 2022. The article has been substantially revised since then.
First Step: Creating a College List
Included in this article:
- What are Safety, Target, or Reach Schools?
- Researching Colleges:
- After a College is Added to the List
- Final Thoughts
The college application process can be daunting, and whether you have started to prepare for it or not, knowing the steps and tricks to get through it makes the process run smoothly. Through this series, I hope to guide you through those steps so you can feel prepared and confident in your college applications. Then, you’ll be able to relax afterward as you wait for college decisions to be released.
One of the first things students should work on is putting together a list of schools they would like to apply to. The list will often change as colleges are periodically added or dropped after learning more about them, which is normal. Don’t feel pressure to apply to a school simply because it was on your list at one point. When choosing the colleges you plan to apply to, you must complete extensive research to decide if the colleges are good for you. Remember, as much as the colleges admit applications based on what they offer; you should be picking schools to apply to based on what they offer.
When researching colleges, it’s essential to have about 8-12 institutions on your list to have a higher chance of gaining admission to a college. Placing all of your faith in 1-2 colleges is never a smart move. However, “shotgunning” or applying to an excessive amount of schools to increase your chances typically is not the best approach either. In such cases, applicants tend to forfeit the quality of their applications and pay thousands to apply to schools that are not realistic choices. To combat this issue, research into the programs offered and college visits helps to refine your list.
A good rule of thumb is to have 3-4 safeties, 3-4 targets, and 2-4 reach schools.
What are Safety, Target, or Reach Schools?
Safety schools: institutions where your stats place you well above their average admitted student, giving you an almost guaranteed admission. Oftentimes, these are state colleges with high acceptance rates. They allow you that safety net to fall back on in case your target or reach schools don’t pan out.
Target schools: colleges where you fall between the 25th and 75th percentile when looking at your statistics. These are colleges where you fall into the shoes of their average admitted student, allowing you almost a guarantee of admission; however, there is still a chance of rejection. It’s important to apply to these colleges when looking for a place to support you as a student and surround you with academically like-minded individuals.
Reach schools: are colleges with incredibly low acceptance rates and are highly competitive. Whether or not your stats meet the average, applying to these schools isn’t always a waste of time. Most of these institutions take a holistic approach to selecting applicants, so there is always a possibility. However, it’s essential not to hold a significant weight on their decisions. Another note regarding reach schools: Ivies and T-20 (institutions with single-digit acceptance rates) will almost always be reach schools, no matter your stats. These institutions accept very few people, and the students in their classes are incredibly diverse, so while you may be their ideal student, you still may not be accepted due to the slim admission rates.
It’s important to consider schools that fall under any of these categories to ensure that your choices are varied and that you have options that take into account any circumstance that may arise.
Many factors go into researching colleges, though many students don’t know what to look for. I will briefly summarize the top five categories that many students find important, but if something isn’t a deal breaker for you or doesn’t hold as much weight, feel free not to include it within your research. There will also be categories that aren’t as relevant to deciding if the college is good for you; however, it’s wise to note.
Pro tip: Create a spreadsheet to store research in to look back on later. I will reference this spreadsheet a few times within this series as it will help a lot when applying to colleges and receiving admission decisions.
Factors to Consider:
Cost of Attendance (COA):
The COA of a college is imperative because while schools award financial aid through grants, scholarships, and loans, we must be realistic about how much they will give. If you are an out-of-state (OOS) student, they will most likely award you less than an in-state student. This phenomenon applies heavily to colleges under the University of California (UC schools). They will give little to no aid to out-of-state students, so expect to take out loans or pay for the entirety of their tuition on your own.
For low-income students, look at colleges that are 100% need-blind. They will award low-income students full tuition or a full ride if admitted but remember that they are typically incredibly competitive. Examples of need-blind colleges include the entire Ivy League, Boston University, Rice University, Stanford University, MIT, and others. If you are low-income, you may consider creating a category to mention how willing they are to help with financial need because while not all institutions are 100% need-blind, state colleges may have similar rules for students residing within their state, or colleges may guarantee almost 100% financial needs are met. Consider scholarships and programs within your state, like Questbridge or Bright Futures, and those offered within certain universities.
The acceptance rate will play a significant role in which category you place the college under (safety, target, or reach). It’s great to keep an eye out to keep your expectations appropriate for the institution. Often, students may attempt to avoid applying to colleges with low acceptance rates, which limits their options. Not sending an application to a school you would like to attend because of a low acceptance rate is a guaranteed rejection, whereas applying gives you a chance or at the very least, an answer. However, schools should not be chosen simply by acceptance rates but by what they offer.
This category will allow you to create goals for your standardized scores while also working to bump your GPA up to their threshold within the first quarter/ semester of school. A strong ACT/SAT (99th percentile or top 25th percentile score for the school) score makes any application stronger. Still, many schools are test-optional or test-blind for applicants attempting to gain admission into the class of 2027, so it’s crucial to note that as well in case you don’t have a score in this range. Please remember that your score on the SAT or ACT does not make or break an application, nor does it define you.
This one is important for applicants looking to find a community on campus, especially if you’re likely to house on campus. It also allows a dash of culture to enrich your time at the institution. A diversified campus typically has support groups for all groups of people and is more accepting of differences, even within the student body. It also creates a safer, more comfortable environment for students who identify as people of color.
The population size of a campus is critical to your time on campus. Suppose you’re looking for a campus where you see the same few people daily, and teachers are typically more interactive with their students. In that case, you will want to find colleges with smaller populations because it often leads to lower faculty-to-student ratios. Colleges with under 5,000 students would be considered to have a smaller population size. For students who are comfortable with the idea of a busy campus bustling with life, look for campuses with large population sizes (~10,000+). If a medium-sized school sounds perfect for you, where you get the best of both worlds, look for institutions with about 5,000-9,999 students.
Consider a category in that spreadsheet for faculty-to-student ratio if class size is essential to you. Still, it isn’t mandatory and depends on the student’s learning size and comfort when deciding if they are looking for a specific class size. Smaller and larger ratios have advantages and disadvantages, so bear those in mind when choosing what is best for you.
After a College is Added to the List
Once you’ve decided to add a college to your list, there are a few more things you will want to look for and store somewhere in case you need to find it later. While it may seem obvious, it’s important to remember these when completing applications.
Noting when applications are due allows you to create a timeline for when you begin your applications to these colleges. Submitting applications before the deadline that you choose does not increase your chances of getting in, but keeping a day or two for a buffer period is good in case of any technical difficulties.
Early Decision (ED): is binding, meaning if you are accepted to the institution, you are legally required to go unless there is a financial issue. The acceptance rates for early decision will be much higher than the institution’s regular decision or early action, so if there is a college you are sure you want to attend if admitted and it’s your dream school, applying ED may be the route to go. Expect application deadlines in October or November for Early Decision.
Early Action: is simply applying early, with no legal binding to the school. You receive your admission decision early, though there may be a higher acceptance rate for Early Action. Colleges may also require students to apply in the Early Action cycle to be considered for merit scholarships, so research if this is true for your colleges. The application deadline for Early Action is around the same time as Early Decision, so October or November.
Regular Decision: will have a later deadline and is the most competitive, but again, nothing binds applicants to the school. This application round is the most common, so colleges receive most of their applications during this round. The major advantage to this round is it’s due later (December-January), so there’s more time to perfect an application and hold more confidence in it.
A couple of colleges will base their admissions decisions on demonstrated interest, so it’s important to remember to fulfill this piece of their review. The best way to show demonstrated interest is through visiting the school, scheduling a virtual visit, and communicating with them over calls or emails. How you interact with them on social media can be significant, so follow their Instagram accounts or Twitter. Try to communicate with them frequently because one email simply isn’t enough. You must convince the admissions officers that their school is your first choice (even if it isn’t) because they will be biased toward students who seem more excited about attending their institution.
This one is a given. It’s mainly to go back when you need to do some more research on specific programs to help you write your supplemental essays. It helps when you have a direct link because college websites can be hard to navigate because they cater to many different groups of people.
Admission Counselor Contact Information:
This can be important to keep in mind when there are questions the website can’t answer. This information is also a direct line of communication that is best for demonstrating interest outside of visits. Contacting the institution is a great way to land on their radar; however, don’t bet on this working for prestigious schools with high volumes of applicants. Research the specific admission counselor assigned to your region/location because you will be redirected to them regardless, so it’s best to email them directly for a faster response. If you can’t find their email, don’t stress too much and send it to the generic one because they will most likely redirect you themselves.
Many institutions will guarantee housing for first-year students, even require it, so it’s essential to ensure you know these facts beforehand. If housing off-campus is important for you, this may be a deal breaker; however, for those relying heavily on housing on-campus, it’s reassuring to know there will be space for you. When they have a rule that first-year students are to stay on campus, though, know that there will almost always be a lively student body with events constantly happening to entertain and enrich the students. Leaving your parents may be nerve-wracking, but rest assured, they will try to give you a great experience while you spend your year there.
The college application journey may seem complicated; however, this series will hopefully give you peace of mind, knowing the steps will be laid out with detailed instructions. Don’t feel that your college list has to be definite once created. You will learn more about different colleges in the coming months, so it’s okay to change what colleges you are interested in. Just ensure that as you get closer to October or November, you aren’t constantly changing your list because this will be when writing supplements becomes important. Keep an eye out for additions to this series to keep yourself on task and in the know this year. It can be hectic, but there are a lot of resources you can benefit from, so try not to overlook them.
Good luck as you begin your college application journey. You got this!
Reviewed by Sarah Zunaed and Dr. Kaisar Alam