The College List Part III: A Balanced Application List - College in 321

The College List Part III: A Balanced Application List

Written by Kathy deJong

March 8, 2018


The College List Part III: A Balanced Application List

[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]by Kathy de Jong, Independent Educational Consultant


Anyone planning on attending a 4 year college should put together a thoughtful and balanced college application list. In today’s competitive college admission environment, students should be applying to multiple colleges to ensure acceptance somewhere. However, creating the list goes beyond picking a few random colleges and “The One” that you have every intention of attending.


In Part I of this series of College List blogs, I discussed the recommended preparation leading up to creating a college list.  Part I: The College List Preparation

In Part II, I examined the criteria by which students should be viewing colleges.  Part II: College List Selection Criteria


The Optimal Number of Colleges on an Application List

To start, there is no magic number for how many colleges and universities should be on your application list. It must be more than one. There are no guarantees of acceptance in any given college (with very few exceptions).

On the other end of the spectrum, it is not necessary (with very few exceptions), to apply to over 10 colleges. You can only attend one school. And each application, can take hours of work.  Then there is the costs. With some applications costing upward of $75, the college application process can set you back over $500.

So what’s the right number?  If you are a student that is interested only in in-state public schools, the answer may be 4 – 5.  If you are a great student, with awesome test scores, and you are looking for the best “offer” at both public and private colleges throughout the country, you may want to consider around 8-10 colleges.  Students that are applying in a very competitive program or major such as performing or visual arts programs with very low acceptance rates (2-5%) and require an audition or portfolio presentation, may want to exceed 10 college applications.  


A Balanced Application List

One of the most critical characteristics of a final college list is that it is balanced. A balanced list has a 2-3-2 or similar proportion of colleges that are “likely”, “match” or “reach” colleges.

Keep in mind, this evaluation is subjective because a student never knows where he falls in the current applicant pool. However, some structure is required to assess the balance of the list. I like to use two sets of data to categorize the buckets: Student Stats (GPA and standardized test scores) and College Acceptance Rate (The % of freshman applicants that were accepted in the previous freshman class). The Student “freshman profile” Stats and Acceptance Rate for a college can usually be found by searching for “freshman profile” on the college’s website.

Start with the Student Stats. Is the student in the top 25% of the GPA and test scores for a given school? Then temporarily label it Likely. If the student is in the top 50% label it Match and below 50% Reach. Then examine the second factor, freshman acceptance rate for the previous year. If the acceptance rate for a given school is greater than 50%, maintain the temporary label. If the acceptance rate is 30-50%, you will probably want to re-label the Likely colleges to Match and Match to Reach. If the acceptance rate at a school is less than 30% consider the school a Reach, unless the student is in the very top of the freshman class for Stats. Any college with an acceptance rate of less than 20% should be considered a reach for everyone.  

Keep in mind, colleges don’t just evaluate grades and test scores. Most colleges take a holistic approach in the application review process and take into consideration the entire person (other aspects of your application such as essay, extra-curriculars, awards and talents, etc.) to determine whether that individual is a good fit for their academics and campus life. That’s why students with perfect grades and perfect test scores may not be an ideal candidate for an Ivy-League college and a less than stellar student may be accepted based on their other extraordinary achievements. The balanced list just gets you lined up with an appropriate range of colleges.


Am I prepared to meet the application and freshman year requirements?

Research the requirements for each college before you finalize the list. Some colleges require a specific number of high school classes or a specific class.  Others require interviews or several lengthy essays. AP Subject Test scores may be required. Accepted students may be required to participate in seminars or other mandatory programs including a senior year practicum. If you are not prepared or willing to meet the requirements, take the college off of the list.


Can I see myself happy at this college?

Sometimes, it all comes down to intuition and how we feel about a place. A student evaluating their college application list should be able to say with confidence that they would love to go to any one of the colleges on their list, and they can see themselves being happy in that location.  If that is not the case, take the school off of the list.


Re-evaluate the List

This exercise may have resulted in unbalance list or a list with an inadequate number of colleges. If so, do some more research and/or ask an advisor if they can help you identify colleges to fill out your list in a balanced manor.

Remember, to do it right, you can’t build a college list in 15 minutes. After the online research, college visits, list evaluation and re-evaluation, it is then time to finalize.  By taking these steps, have confidence that the list will result in a perfect college match for you.


College in 3-2-1 provides comprehensive college preparation services for high school students including high school course selection, college research and list development, application assistance, essay consultation, and financial aid, extra-curricular and summer enrichment counseling.

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