Balanced College Lists: The How and Why

Do you have a dream school you’re sold on, and hardly want to look anywhere else? Do you have so many colleges you want that you can hardly decide? Or do you have no idea where to start at all? No matter what your college list situation is, Cardinal Education is here to help. Here are some factors you should consider when building a balanced college list that works for you.

Getting Started

If you have no or too few colleges that you know you’d want to attend, first start looking some up. Look into schools you’ve heard good things about from your friends and family and the top ranked colleges in the nation. Browse their websites, learn about their school spirit, research programs in fields that you are interested in. Keep in mind not to just look at top 10 colleges, such as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale; smaller institutions, like Amherst and Pomona, should still be on your radar. 

Naviance: The Next Step

Once you have 15+ schools in mind, it’s time to get cracking with some advanced tools. Most people would probably tell you just to Google the median test scores and GPAs of accepted students for the schools on your list, and compare them with yours. But to truly code your chances as safety, target, upper target, reach or upper reach, you need a more advanced tool like Naviance.

Why? Because Naviance’s college search will help you dig deeper into data specific to your profile that simply isn’t available on Google. Naviance will not only factor in your GPA and test scores compared with the average for the school, it will also take into account your high school’s reputation, your ethnicity, your athlete or legacy status, and more. This means that you can look up, say, how other students of your ethnicity did in admissions with a similar GPA and test scores. Or you can look up how other students from your high school specifically did with a similar GPA and test scores; this should give you some clue as to how your high school is perceived by admissions officers. 

Once you have measured your GPA and test scores against several different metrics on Naviance, look at all the data you’ve collected and sort your colleges according to the following categories:

  • Impossible: Your GPA and test scores are much lower than the average for students similar to you who were accepted. All accepted students in your school have a much higher GPA and test scores than you. 
  • Reach Schools: Your GPA and test scores are much lower than the average for students accepted to that school, though there is some chance of acceptance for students who had a slightly higher GPA and test scores than you. This is also the general category for any school with an acceptance rate of 10% or less, no matter where your statistics stand.
  • Target Schools: Your GPA and test scores are slightly higher, the same, or lower–but higher than the lowest accepted score–than the average accepted at that institution, and the college barely rejects students from your school.
  • Safety Schools: Your GPA and test score are much higher than the average accepted at that institution. Safeties also usually have a high acceptance rate, of 30% or higher.

Be honest with yourself about where you stand. The data may disappoint, but it is in your best interest to make decisions based on the precedent of where the students before you have gone.

So How Can I Tell If My List is Balanced?

“Balanced” means that your list should actually comprise a majority of target and safety schools, with only 3-4 reach schools–even though it’s tempting, think twice before applying to all the Ivies! Chances are, your list might be too skewed toward safeties or toward reaches, so consider which colleges on either end you want to cut. If your list is too skewed one way or the other, you will also want to research more colleges in the appropriate admission difficulty levels to replace them. Your final list should not only be balanced in the way described above, you should also narrow your choices down to 8-10 colleges. 

One Last Tip

In comparison to your dream schools, your safeties might feel dull and unexciting. But make no mistake: even the easiest schools to enter on your list should still be ones you’d be thrilled to attend. Safeties are there for a reason; the college admissions process is highly competitive, and you may end up having to choose between them! In the end, you want to have a list of schools that no matter where you end up, you can feel happy and fulfilled.

Once you have a balanced college list, it’s time to start thinking about strategizing the other parts of your application, such as SAT subject test prep, and planning your list of summer activities to impress. Stay tuned for more tips!