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Compose the List

Updated 5/21/2024

In the first phase of exploring colleges, your goal is to cast a wide net so as to include all schools that might be a good match for your son or daughter.  Then, as you begin to research and visit colleges, you might eliminate one that feels too isolated and another where it snows eight months of the year, but if you've done a good job of identifying possibilities, you're still left with a long list of schools.

In phase two, you and your son or daughter will refine the list by applying two filters to each college.

Filter #1: Can Your Child Get In?

The first filter is selectivity. What are the odds that your son or daughter will be accepted? You’ve probably been applying this filter subconsciously all along, but now’s the time to do so methodically.  Ideally, you'll compare your teen's academic statistics; his SAT/ACT score (if taken), GPA and class rank to published averages for each college. This isn't easy to do, as the data are not readily available and many colleges no longer require standardized testing. Here are a few places to try, however. College Navigator is a free government-sponsored website that has a lot of information, and Niche has a "Will you get in?" feature that allows you to plot your GPA and SAT/ACT score and compare yourself to students who've applied, been accepted, rejected, and wait-listed. Finally, if you're willing to pay around $39.95 to purchase U.S. News & World Report's College Compass, you get access to its a lot of useful data and its "Will You Get In?" calculator. Note that the information used to populate the calculators comes from other users - not official college sources.

Comparing your teen's stats to those of accepted students at a particular college gives you an idea of whether your child is a righteous candidate, but may not be a reliable predictor of whether she'll be accepted if she's applying to schools with low acceptance rates. The admissions process at highly selective schools takes into account a variety of other factors beyond GPA and test scores. Read my article on Ultracompetitive Colleges to learn what these schools are looking at.

Once you have compiled information on all the colleges your child is considering, it’s time to assess whether the list includes an adequate number of choices in each of three categories; safety schools, likely schools, and reach schools.

A safety school is one where it is almost inconceivable that your son will not be accepted. His academic qualifications should be above the average qualifications of enrolled students. In addition, however, it should be a school he would be willing to attend. So if his dream school is a small liberal arts college, Mammoth State would not be the best safety school. 

A likely school is one in which your child looks very much like a typical enrolled student  - unless it's a college with a very low acceptance rate. This is a critical caveat. As discussed earlier in the article on Ultracompetitive Colleges, the hallmark of schools with very low acceptance rates is that they have far more qualified applicants than places in the class. As a result, many students who look just like enrolled students will end up being denied acceptance.

Finally, a reach school is one where your teen's odds of getting accepted are somewhat long, either because his qualifications are below average for the school or simply because the school has a low acceptance rate. 

Filter #2: Can You Afford It?

After you’ve assessed the likelihood that your daughter will be accepted to the colleges on her list, the next step is to evaluate whether you can afford them. So - once you've composed a list of reach, likely, and safety schools based on her academic qualifications, it’s time to look at the sticker price and, even more important, what the actual price is likely to be for your family - what's known as your net price. (Net price is defined as the cost of attendance, i.e. the sum of all costs for one year at a particular school, minus any grant money the school gives the student.) Every college has a net price calculator, accessible from its website, that allows families to get an estimate of what the college will cost their family based on their answers to a set of financial questions. 

Use these net price calculators to get a net price estimate for each of the colleges on your child's list. (I highly recommend that you read Net Price Calculators to learn more about this extremely important topic.) Then review the list one more time to make sure she has a reasonable number of reach, likely, and safety schools whose net price estimates are within your comfort zone.

What about the colleges with cost estimates outside that zone? Should you cross them off the list?

I wouldn't. First, remember that the net price estimate is just that - a ballpark figure. Your family's actual net price might turn out to be lower, or your child might get merit aid (which is often not included in the net price estimate) or an outside scholarship. Bottom line: there's no harm in having a few pricey schools on the list, as long as you also have good choices in the affordable range.

How Many Colleges Should A Student Apply To?

Unfortunately, there’s no way to give a meaningful generic answer to this question. Instead, I’ll try to provide some information that I hope will help you and your son or daughter to make an informed decision. First, what’s typical? In March, 2023, a report from Common App, an application platform used by over 1,000 colleges, provided some useful information. The number of applications submitted per student in 2022-23 rose to 5.7, up from 5.3 applications per student in 2019-2020 (before the pandemic). Of note, the analysis was limited to applications associated with the 841 colleges that were Common App members in both years.

Media attention focuses a hugely disproportionate amount of attention on the complex and highly competitive admissions process at highly selective schools, and if your son is applying to them, you need to pay attention. However, if, like the majority of applicants, he's applying to schools that accept over 50% of applicants, the process is much more straightforward. Think about it this way: Even a student whose academic qualifications place him at the middle of the applicant pool will have low odds of acceptance at a college that accepts only 10% of students, but if a college's acceptance rate is 70%, he's in excellent shape. 

Advice for a Student Applying to Highly Competitive Colleges

If many of the colleges on your son’s list have low acceptance rates, he should do two things:

1. Include on the likely list a few choices from among the following types of colleges:
     a. Colleges with substantially higher acceptance rates
     b. Colleges in which your son will be close to the top of the applicant pool
     c. Public universities in your state in which his qualifications are at least average. (I suspect that taxpayer-supported colleges are more concerned about apparent fairness than private ones.)

2. Apply to a larger number of reach schools: If all top colleges used an identical algorithm to accept students, then a student who applied to five such schools would get the same admissions decision from all five. In other words, he would be no more likely to be accepted to at least one school if he applied to five than if he only applied to one. However, top colleges do not use a standardized algorithm. Their admission processes are holistic, subjective, and somewhat unpredictable. It's not uncommon for a student to be accepted to one top college and denied at another with a very similar admissions profile. Consequently, a student who applies to five schools with an acceptance rate of 10% is more likely to be accepted to at least one of them than a student who applies to just one such school. (That said, when a student applies to too many colleges, she may find she can't do her best job of crafting a compelling application at any.)

I realize that encouraging top students to hedge their bets by applying to more reach schools makes admission decisions more competitive and unpredictable for everyone. Thus, doing so will probably be worse for the world at large, but may be better for your child. You make the call.

Once you and your teen have decided where she should apply to college, it's time to turn your attention to figuring out how you're going to pay for it.

Next section:  Pay for College


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