Early senior year is a good time to make your final list of colleges. Given today’s competitive admissions climate, experts suggest you apply to at least two colleges where you will almost certainly be admitted (i.e. “safety” or “probable” schools). Depending on your personal situation and goals, most advisors will encourage you to apply to at least five colleges and sometimes as many as twenty. For seniors seeking admission to competitive colleges, experts generally suggest sending 10 to 20 college applications (25% – reach, 50% – match, 25% – safety) based on your academic achievements and other factors.
Selecting colleges and universities that appeal to you in all three categories is a sound combination strategy to manage your risk and maintain your upside. Reach schools are usually your top choice colleges, and those most difficult to get into. Match (or target) schools are those where you have a reasonable chance for admission. Safety schools are those where you typically are somewhat overqualified, where you will almost certainly gain admission.
When categorizing your list of colleges, it’s important to look candidly at your admissions profile and the selectivity of the college before assessing your odds. If the school’s admissions rate is under 20%, it’s probably not wise to consider it a “safety” school. Don’t be overconfident. Highly competitive colleges are known to turn down some exceptionally qualified applicants, including those with perfect SAT scores.
Experts will tell you that admissions officers are also focused on yield (percentage of students who accept their offer of admission) and generally prefer a well-qualified applicant they consider likely to attend over an exceptionally qualified candidate who would probably not choose to enroll.
Insiders advise you to beware of the “super stretch” – it’s important to know the difference between a legitimate reach school that is a bit of a stretch, and a school where it is just about impossible for you to get in. They also advise you to make sure you like your safety (or probable) and match schools. Select them carefully as you may end up there.
A final bit of advice is to try to manage your emotions vis-à-vis the reach colleges. You may have your heart set on attending, but the admissions officers may decide otherwise – make sure you have good back-up options. At the same time, don’t be afraid to reach for the top and don’t be shy about applying to a few additional schools – just in case.