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Your College Search... Reach Colleges, Safety Schools, and Good Matches 

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

So you're wondering how many colleges you should apply to? How do you decide when you've filled out enough applications? Much of this decision depends on what type of colleges you are applying to. When doing your college search, it's important that you have a sense of which of the following three categories each of the colleges you are considering falls into.

Reach Colleges

Are there certain colleges on your list of colleges where you think to yourself "You never know... they may love my admissions essay" or "I don't have an 1800 SAT score, but I really would love to go to college there"? You've probably identified a reach college for you. Reach colleges are schools that may be a stretch given your high school "resume." For these colleges, your SAT scores may be on the low end of the range or your GPA may not be quite up to snuff.

You can probably come up with a dozen reasons not to apply to a reach college: it's one more application to complete, the application requires an additional essay, or it's going to cost another $50 to apply. If it's a college you really want to go to, and you think you've got a shot (even if it may be a long shot), why not apply? What do you have to lose? For these colleges, you're likely going to need to put some extra work in on the essays to really knock them out of the park. If they offer admissions interviews, definitely take advantage of the opportunity. It's these additional factors that are going to help the admissions committee make a case for admitting you even though your academic stats may be on the low end.

Safety Schools

Is this whole college admissions process making you nervous? Are you really stressing out about where you are going to get in? Applying to one or two safety schools can really help calm the nerves. Safety schools are colleges where you are going to be at or near the top end of the applicant pool and your chances of admission are extremely high. State colleges can often serve as really good safety schools since they usually offer preferential admissions for in-state students. It's even better if your safety school has rolling admissions or non-binding early action admissions so you can find out early on whether you got in somewhere. It will be a huge relief to know you got into a college you'll be happy at, even if it may not be one of your top choices. And, at the very least, you'll know you're headed off to college next year.

Safety schools can also serve another purpose. They can give you options when it comes to financial aid packages. If you can avoid it, you don't want to leave yourself evaluating just one financial aid award package. The cost of college can often be a major factor in the college decision and having a few choices certainly can't hurt. Often times, you may be eligible for honors scholarships at your safety school, meaning that it may end up being significantly more affordable than your other options. In a worst-case scenario, you may even be able to use a financial aid award package from one school to highlight shortcomings of a package from another school.

You can use our Financial Aid Award Evaluator to compare packages side-by-side.

Good Matches

So good matches are the middle ground between reach colleges and safety schools. These are colleges where you likely fall toward the middle of the applicant pool. Checking out the profile for last year's freshman class can often help you make a call on whether a college is a good match for you (at least academically). You're likely not a shoo-in at a good match school, but you also won't be surprised if an acceptance letter comes your way.

Planning Your College Applications

Once you have some sense of where the colleges you are considering fall within these categories, you can take this knowledge and use it to craft your own college admissions strategy. Your ultimate goal is to get into a school you'll be happy at. A mix of colleges in each of these categories can help ensure you receive a fat admissions envelope from a few colleges, while also allowing you to take a chance applying to a few long shots.

If you are looking to apply to 5-7 colleges, it might be a good idea to shoot for the following mix of colleges:

  • 1-2 safety schools
  • 2-3 good matches
  • 2-3 reach colleges

A little bit of strategy can help make the whole process a little less stressful and may even end with you receiving an acceptance letter from a college you considered a real reach.

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