How to Choose Likely, Target and Reach Schools
High school students often enter into the process of searching for a likely, target or reach college with unrealistic expectations, both positively and negatively.
Recently, I met with a Partners For Achievement student who had 20 schools on her list, all of which were the most selective in the nation, including Ivy Leagues, the University of Chicago, Vanderbilt and Northwestern. She was reaching only for the stars, and I had to gently, but clearly, tell her, “You need to add some less selective schools to your list so that you know you’ll get accepted somewhere. Even under the best of circumstances, what you have now is a very risky list when April comes ‘round and colleges send out their letters of acceptance and denial.”
On the flipside, other students come in without an awareness of how strong their chances are of being accepted into schools. Some might have, say, a B- average and 21 on their ACT and don’t think they’ll get in anywhere. I respond to them by saying, “You know what? I can come up with 50 schools right now where you’ll be accepted.” They’re shocked, and happy, to hear that.
It’s all about identifying where one might fit academically on the spectrum of colleges. A good place to start is to develop a clear understanding of what constitutes a likely school, a target school and a reach school. Here’s a look at each type:
A likely school is one where an applicant is quite nearly guaranteed being admitted; there’s an 80 to 100 percent chance that you’ll get in as the student’s grades and test scores fall well within the averages of admitted students. The key factors to consider are the school’s acceptance rate and how they all mesh with the student’s high school course selection, GPA, and test scores.
Additionally, some schools utilize a clear calculation approach: For example, the public universities in Iowa have a plug-in tool on their admissions websites that uses GPA, test score, and number of required core academic courses to calculate a student’s opportunity for guaranteed admission. If the score is at least 245, a student can be assured that they will be accepted. Some schools make it clear that if a student simply has a certain ACT or SAT score and no failing grades, they will be most welcome to attend that school. Keep in mind, at public universities, admissions requirements are sometimes different for in-state and out-of-state residents.
At target schools, you have maybe a 50 to 75 percent chance of being accepted, so these colleges are a little more of a stretch. A primary difference between likely and target schools is acceptance rates. If an applicant falls well within the average GPA and test scores for those accepted to that school, but the school’s acceptance rate is only 18 percent, then being accepted is still far from a sure thing. Some additional factors that come into play here are the number of applicants for that applicant pool and extra-curricular activities that contribute to a student’s “stand out factor” including volunteer endeavors and participation and leadership in activities. With target schools, it’s more than just, “I have all the required numbers.”
There are two types of reach schools, first where one’s credentials fall outside the school’s requirements. Let’s say a student has a 2.5 GPA and a 20 on the ACT, but the university’s incoming average freshman profile is 3.5 GPA and a 28 ACT. Even if the school’s admissions rate is 70 percent, that student is very likely not meeting their marks.
Second, a reach school can be one where a student is in the range of requirements, but the acceptance rate is extremely low. Any college with an acceptance rate of 20 percent or lower should be considered a reach, even if the applicant is an extraordinarily accomplished student. Applicants who fall into this category often say to me, “But I have everything the school is asking for.” I answer, “You do, but everyone else applying does, too, and there are just too many of you. That’s why the odds are not favorable.”
It’s important to have a mix of likely, target and reach schools on your list. That way, you’ll be sure to have all your bases covered, and you’ll wind up at a college that’s the right academic fit for you.
The PFA College Admissions Program aims to guide students through the college planning process with our S.A.F.E. College List Strategy that analyzes the Social, Academic, Financial and Employment fit of the schools to which our students consider applying. For more information about PFA’s College Admissions Program click here.
Tracy Mehr is a College Counselor at Partners For Achievement. Read more about Mehr and the rest of the Partners For Achievement team.