Starting your college application process with a balanced college list will end up getting you better results.
There are two main obstacles that prevent students from building a balanced college list. The first one is thinking that a school is a “likely” or “target,” when it’s actually a “reach.” Basically, people make the mistake of thinking that schools that used to admit a much higher percentage of their applicants still do, and therefore think they are safer than they actually are.
Here’s a perfect example. UC Santa Barbara’s admit rate in 2000 was just under 50%. Today, it’s 29%. And the UC’s institutional priorities, and those of the Santa Barbara campus specifically, have changed over the last 20-30 years with that decline. Whereas in the past it may have been possible to say that UC Santa Barbara was a “likely” school for a particular student, today, the decisions are much less predictable, and nearly impossible to call UCSB a “likely” for any applicant.
So if you’re thinking that UCSB was your “safe” school, getting a rejection letter would be quite an unhappy surprise.
The other obstacle that prevents students from building a balanced college list is that they’re hesitant to (or just won’t) look at schools they don’t know, or haven’t heard of. This is a problem that can easily be overcome – just start looking!
If location is most important to you, look at ALL of the schools in a particular area (there are 53+ colleges in the Boston area – look at Wentworth, Simmons, UMass Boston, UMass Lowell, Olin and Bentley too!). If you want to stay close to home, look at both public and private, smaller and larger, and don’t necessarily dismiss colleges that have some religious affiliation. Focus on academics – but don’t Google “best college for…. (whatever you plan to major in)” because that’s going to get you a list of the absolute most selective colleges that have your major. This isn’t helping! Look for other kinds of lists:
- Colleges with representatives who live in your area is a great place to start
- Colleges that offer tuition discounts to students from your state
- There are also dozens of other lists with different perspectives: best colleges for Jewish students; best colleges for introverts; colleges that support LGBTQ+ students; “green” colleges. Think about what’s important to you (need help with that? Here’s a good way to start), and look for colleges that have that.
Here’s a video to help you research colleges, focusing more on the character of the school – whether or not you’d fit there – than the selectivity. And here’s our virtual college checklist, to help you keep track of what you learn as you do your research!
There’s another way to look at reach/target/safe schools, and that’s through the lens of financial aid. Journalist Jeff Selingo just released a new book (my autographed copy is on the way!), and he characterizes colleges as either buyers or sellers. Buyers give merit-based aid. Sellers do not, and on top of that they have very low admit rates. So if your list is full of “seller” schools – the ones with low admit rates – you may get the happy surprise of being admitted, but you won’t get any merit-based scholarship money – because they don’t give it. Jeff elaborates in this short video below. For more on how college financial aid works, check out our post with a 35-minute webinar in which I tell you how to find out which schools give, and which don’t.
Here are a handful of other blog posts we’ve published about balancing your college list:
Bottom line: Starting your college application process with a balanced college list will end up getting you better results. Most of the time that means more options and merit scholarships! All of this is GOOD for the teenaged psyche. And it will give you as a parent joy at seeing your teenager feel validated.
Let us know if we can help with this.