Admissions time is here and you want to get into the best school possible. Decisions, decisions!

You might have a dream school or two in mind, but you are not sure what your chances are for admissions. Maybe you’re shooting too high? Maybe too low? How do you know?

It’s tough out there. Admissions rates are declining, and the number of applications is rising every year. According to the Washington Post, admissions rates are falling for many of the nation’s top schools. The University of California system, too, is becoming more and more competitive. Last year—the 11th consecutive year of record-high application numbers—193,873 students applied for admission to at least one UC campus, an increase of 5.6% from 2014. Indeed, UCLA’s admissions rate dropped to a record low of 17.3 percent for freshman applicants. In these times of greater competition, what’s the trick for coming up with the perfect school list? Careful strategy.

 

Acceptance Rates of Top 15 Schools

Tricks for Coming up with the Perfect School List

The first strategic step to creating the perfect school list is to give yourself a range of options. You will want your list to include three types of schools:

  • Reach
  • Target
  • Safe

Reach schools are your dream schools; given your grades and test scores, you don’t think you have the strongest chance of getting in, but if you ace the essays and impress the admissions officer with interesting and excellent extracurricular activities, who knows? Target schools are those that are “just right,” and safe schools keep you from anxiety about whether you will be going to college at all. For a 10-school list, I recommend 2-3 reach schools, 4-5 targets, and 2-3 safe schools.

I advise students not to underestimate safe schools because that’s where you might find great scholarship money. For example, a Blue Stars student recently received a full-tuition Trustee Scholarship plus a $5,000/year stipend from her safety school, University of Southern California. In the end, she decided to attend USC, and armed with the advantage of such a prestigious scholarship, she will surely be just as competitive upon graduation as someone who went to Harvard.

Example of a Perfect School List

To give you an example, I have created a school list for a hypothetical freshman application. This applicant is a male with a 3.7 GPA, 2100 SAT I score, and an aspiration to study computer science. Since he is not a perfect 4.0 student, it does not make sense to apply to Top 10 schools. This does not mean, however, that he does not have great opportunities ahead of him. The trick to his admissions success will be a carefully researched, systematic school selection process.

Let’s take a look at his extracurriculars, volunteer activities, and essays. He won some regional math competitions, was the president of his school’s computer science club, participated in varsity track and field, and volunteered for two years at the Audubon Society. He also took some initiative by creating a mobile app notifying students of his school’s extracurricular schedule. For his Common Application personal statement, he wrote a reflective essay about his multi-ethnic identity growing up half Chinese and half Mexican. His supplemental essays were detailed discussions of his love for computer science and technology, specific to each school.

Because our hypothetical student has a pretty impressive set of extracurricular activities and interesting stories to tell in his essays, which will certainly increase the value of his admissions profile, the best path to securing a range of great possibilities is to approach the process by looking at two different ranking categories—the general rankings and those specific to his chosen field, computer science. This way, he will have the opportunity to get a great computer science education no matter where he is accepted. A school list like the one below will afford our student great choices when acceptance season rolls around. Remember: the goal of the admissions process is not to focus on one school and hope you get accepted but to give yourself the largest and best set of choices.

School Selection Tools for Assessing your Competitiveness

So how does one start the process? As a first stop, consult U.S. News and World Report and other ranking systems (such as Princeton Review, Washington Monthly, and Forbes Magazine) for a general sweep of school statistics. Start with approximately 20 – 25 schools and then narrow the list to 15. Then, create a data sheet with all the relevant variables. These may include:

  • Mean GPA
  • Mean test scores
  • Acceptance rates
  • Student/teacher ratio
  • Department rankings
  • Male/female ratio
  • Link to chosen major

Take a look at where you fall in the picture you have set up. For example, say a school has a 600 – 650 mean SAT range. Just because you may have scored a 580 doesn’t mean you won’t get in. Rather, some other factors on your application may need to compensate (and they very well could!). Gathering this data will help you make smarter decisions.

Don’t forget, however, that it is important to consider “fit” for your interests and preferences. For example, the University of Chicago is a great school, but not for students uninterested in fierce intellectual and political debate. Carnegie Mellon is fantastic for students interested in science and technology but it might not serve the student looking for a well-rounded liberal arts education (but the art school is great!). Cornell is fantastic, but only for students who thrive in a rural setting.

The Key to Admissions Success: Think Like a Project Director

Applying to college is a great challenge. After all, your future is at stake. Get yourself out of the haze and gain control! Think of yourself as the project director of your own life! Be systematic and stay informed. Assess your strengths and weaknesses as objectively as you can. Be specific about your academic and career goals. Stay creative and flexible. Keep your eye on the target and make sure that all of the specific components fit into your overall vision. With a precise master plan, those thick envelopes should be coming your way!