The first key to success in applying to college is deciding where to apply and making a good college list. It is very important to have realistic expectations about where students may be admitted. There are more than 3,000 colleges in the US, some with admission rates as low as 3%, but many with rates over 50 or even 60%. Community colleges are open to everyone.
Knowing which colleges are realistic options is the first place to begin. College admissions counselors typically sort colleges into three categories, safety, match/target, and reach/dream, depending on whether it is likely the student will be accepted or not. It is commonly recommended that students apply to at least two or three safety, match, and reach schools. On average, students apply to between 8-12 schools.
A safety school is one in which the student’s courses, grades, and test scores are above the 75th percentile for the average accepted student so that the student has a strong chance of being accepted. Typically, safety schools admit a higher percentage of students.
A match/target school is one in which the student’s courses, GPA, and test scores (SAT/ACT) are within the middle 50 percent (25th to 75th percentile) of the recently admitted, incoming freshman class. The closer the student’s scores are to the 75th percentile, the better.
A reach/dream school is one where the student’s academic qualifications are below the 25th percentile of freshmen recently admitted to the school so it is less likely the student will be accepted. Highly competitive colleges with low acceptance rates are considered reach/dream schools even if a student’s statistics match those of the average accepted student in previous classes.
Many colleges review applications holistically which means essays and extracurricular activities are taken into account as well.
Information about each school’s statistics can be found by looking at the school’s incoming freshman profile page.
Can I Afford It?
Another important consideration in making your college list is whether you can afford the tuition. The college list should include some colleges that you can afford without financial aid or with very little. Every year there are some students who think they’re going to receive a large financial aid package, but are disappointed when they don’t, and panicked if they didn’t apply to at least one school that was more affordable.
College costs run the gamut from almost free (community college) to the mid-$30,000s (in-state public universities) to over $70,000 (private colleges) per year for tuition, fees, and housing. To find out specific information for colleges you're interested in, run a search for the college name, total cost of attendance, and the year you'll be starting. Pay attention to costs with aid and without aid.
Financial aid comes in different forms, from grants that don’t have to be paid back to unsubsidized loans that begin accruing interest before you even graduate from college. Once a student has received a financial aid package, cost should be considered. It is generally not advisable for a student to attend an undergraduate school that will burden them or their parents with substantial debt that could take decades to pay off.
Although it can be difficult, it's really important for parents and students to talk about what they can afford while there is still time for students to apply to some colleges within their budget.