“If you don’t apply, you can’t get in!”

Building Your College List

Juniors who are deciding their college lists may feel pressured to apply to a large number of highly ranked, prestigious schools, to increase their chances of being admitted. This pressure comes from parents, peers and social media, and often comes with the message that “If you don’t apply, you can’t get in.”

However, as an Independent Educational Consultant, I advise my families AGAINST this strategy for several reasons.  First, applying to a large number of Reaches is a drain financially, with application fees averaging about $70 per school.  Second, crafting strong applications takes a significant amount of time, as these schools can require as many as 5 or 6 supplemental essays (in addition to the Common App Personal Statement). Furthermore, what each college looks for is quite different – some want published research from applicants, while some schools look for international awards – making it very difficult to be a competitive applicant to all of the prestigious colleges.

Students often spread themselves too thin applying to too many rejective schools, detracting from the quality of the applications and essays. It is very hard for students to complete genuine essays about why a school is the best fit for them, when they are also writing 10 additional essays about why another school is the best fit for them. There are significant differences between Harvard and MIT and University of Pennsylvania and Brown. If a student is a good fit for one of these schools, they are very likely NOT a good fit for the others, and an essay that tries to indicate otherwise will come across as inauthentic.

Many of these highly selective schools admit less than 10% of the applicants. Note, this does not mean that they accept less than 10% of graduating high school seniors, but that they accept less than 10% of the students that APPLY. So, it’s critical to note that most students applying to these schools have 4.5+ GPAs, near-perfect SAT scores, and often the research or international award the prestigious colleges are seeking. Some percentage of admitted students are recruited Division I athletes or Development Admits (meaning their parents have made substantial donations or they are children of Congress people, actors, etc.). The actual acceptance rate for these schools may be 5% or less for students who don’t fall into one of these categories.

There is a fallacy to the notion that applying to more of these high reach schools increases the odds of being admitted to at least one of them. College admissions simply doesn’t work that way. Each school’s decision is completely independent of another school’s decision. If a student applies to one school which accepts 4% of applicants, then a strong student may indeed have a near 4% chance of being admitted to that school. If a student applies to 10 schools which each accept 4% of applicants, the student does not have a 40% chance of being admitted to at least one of these schools. The student will still have roughly a 4% chance of being admitted to any of these schools – meaning there is a very real possibility that the student is still denied acceptance to all of these schools.*  Applying to 10 schools with 4% acceptance rates really just guarantees that the student will get more rejections. I personally don’t know any 17-year-old student whose mental health would not be negatively affected by getting 10 rejections.

Rather than creating a college list based on the prestige, I encourage students to thoughtfully research and select colleges that meet their academic and career goals, where they have a reasonable chance of earning admission. It’s equally important to target colleges where you are most likely to be successful, which are also affordable for the family. The final college list should be BALANCED, with more Likely and Match colleges, and a reasonable number of thoughtfully selected Reach colleges. This will ensure better outcomes in the Spring, and a less stressful and more affirming application process.

*Statistically speaking, if a student is a superior candidate for admission, the chance of being admitted would go up slightly the more schools the student applies to, however that would only be statistically significant if the student applied to significantly more schools.