written by
Alex Brown

Finding balance: Picking a great list of colleges

Mentor Community Admissions Tips 7 min read

There are a lot of schools, more than 4,200 in the U.S. alone, to choose from. Building the list of colleges to apply to can feel like one of the most daunting parts of the application process, but we're hoping this guide can help with your research and find which colleges are the right fit.

Researching colleges can be daunting at first. But with a little insight, you can find the right fit with ease.
Image: Researching colleges can be daunting at first. But with a little insight, you can find the right fit with ease.

First, let's start with some key definitions.

When thinking about which colleges fit on your list, it's important to classify your schools into these three categories: safety, good matches, and reach.
Image: When thinking about which colleges fit on your list, it's important to classify your schools into these three categories: safety, good matches, and reach schools.

What's a safety school?

A safety school is one that you’re pretty certain you’ll get into, where your chance of being accepted is 60% or greater. Your GPA and standardized test scores are better than the average listed for the school, and the acceptance rate is high.

What's a good match school?

Sometimes called "target schools," good matches are ones you have a competitive chance of getting in to. Your GPA and standardized test scores put you right in the average range for that school, giving you a 30% to 60% chance of being accepted.

What's a reach school?

A reach school is one that you may get into. This is a college that has an average GPA and standardized test score range that gives you less than a 30% chance of being accepted, or an elite school that has an acceptance rate lower than 15%.

Based on CollegeBoard suggestions, you'll want to think about 1-2 safety schools, 2-4 good match schools, and 1-2 reach schools when building your list. This is right in line with what we've found in Bullseye interviews with parents and students that 69% of seniors applied to 5+ schools, with the majority of those close to 8.

So now, let's set the stage: You're a rising senior in high school. Which of the following sounds the most like you?

You're a rising senior in high school. Which of the following sounds the most like you? These questions will help you determine which schools are a good fit for you.
Image: Three options describing how high school seniors may be feeling, ranging from knowing a dream school to having an incredibly long list of schools interested in to having no clue where to start.

There's no right or wrong answer here. No matter where you may fall - from thinking you've picked out your dream school to having a list 20+ colleges long to not even having thought about it yet, we've got you covered. Continue reading below based on where you are in the process!

Option one: "I know my dream school," so I’m done – right?

If only it were that easy! It's incredibly risky to only apply to one school, even if you feel it is a "safety" based on your scores and resume. The applicant pool changes each year, and the average accepted applicant one year may not necessarily be accepted the next. We're not trying to sound negative here, but we're wanting to help you keep options open and understand that nothing is "for certain."

To start brainstorming a longer list of schools that you may be open to, let's start with what you like and value about your dream school today. This could be things like:

  • Do you like the location? Is it close or further away from home?
  • How about the vibe of the school? Is it near a city or more rural?
  • Is there a specific major or program you're interested in? Or, does it have a good undeclared program if you're not sure what interests you yet?
  • Is there something special about the school community that stands out? Perhaps a great fan base when it comes to sports, or maybe it has to do with opportunities to take on leadership roles in clubs or volunteer activities?
  • What about the cost? Is it in-state or out-of-state? Public or private?
  • What about the size of the school?

Making a list of the specific aspects of the school that appeal to you will ultimately help you define and add a few other potential schools to apply to. You also can talk to Bullseye mentors who went to these schools and ask which other schools they were considering.

Logos from 30+ universities where Bullseye mentors attended
Image: Logos from 30+ universities where Bullseye mentors attended.

Based on this list of similar schools, you can now organize into the safety, good match, and reach categories. It’s great to have a dream school, but remember – your college experience is what you make of it! You can have a great experience at many different universities. And if for some reason you end up in one that’s not the best fit, plenty of people transfer to a school that’s a better fit for them.

Option 2: "There are a lot of schools that I like...and probably too many." Which ones are the right fit?

It's more than okay to start with a big list. We've found that typically people start with 10-15 schools total they really want to apply to, and then wind up applying to about half or a little more of those.

If this is the place you're in, there are a few routes you can take. First, check out the overall balance of the schools you selected. Are too many of them in either the "safety" or the "reach" category? You want to make sure you're working with a more manageable list based off of your interests and stats like GPA and standardized test scores.

Next, here's where it may help to find someone who you identify with and ask about how they shorted through the college list experience. Perhaps it's a sibling, friend or someone a few years older, but it may be helpful to ask them why they picked the school they went to. And again, we've got 100 mentors eager to chat about their experiences with you. Based on what you hear from who you talk to, ask yourself:

What appeals to you? And just as important, what doesn't?

Then, do a bit more research. Look at the specifics of each school. Which schools have those characteristics that you value? And which schools perhaps don't? While it can be hard to let go from schools you thought were great for what you're looking for, it's important to be honest and stay true to yourself. And, applications typically cost around $50 per school, and most require supplemental essays. Given how time-consuming and costly college applications can be, it's important to be a bit selective.

Finally, you'll want to re-organize your safety, good match, and reach list from there to see if it feels more manageable.

Option 3: "I have no clue where to even start!" A little help, please?

You’re not alone! Again, there are so many options to choose from, so it's understandable to feel overwhelmed.

We'd suggest you start by drawing from your own experiences. What do you like most about your high school experience? Are there things you wish you could change about your experience, or perhaps things to it you know you don't want in a future college?

This can be anything from a certain program that appeals to you, or maybe you’re passionate about community service, athletics, music, or art. It also could have to do with the size, location and overall environment. Whatever it may be, it could help guide what you may value in a university.

Next, research schools that may fall in the safety, good match, and reach categories that fit the criteria that appeal to you. It's all about being open and honest with yourself, and asking for help is always a good thing.

Regardless of where you are now, the most important thing to consider is: Can you picture yourself being happy at these schools?

It's wasted time, money, and effort trying to apply to schools that you don't want to go to, just to say you applied or to rack up another acceptance letter. The process is overwhelming enough, that it's really about focusing your search on schools that you can picture yourself attending, being successful, and enjoying!

It can be easy to get swayed by where your friends may be applying or perhaps where family members want you to apply, but again - it's all about staying true to yourself.

Your list of schools will constantly change as you move through the process, learn more about yourself, and identify what you're ultimately looking for in a school. You just have to get started, and our full team at Bullseye is rooting for you.

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