To choose a good college list, you need to consider many factors (see our post on how to make your college list here) but one step is particularly difficult for most of our students: classifying colleges as safety, match or reach. We’re writing this article to help students do this difficult task of more accurately diversifying across colleges of varying degree of selectivity.
You’ll want to pick two colleges as your safety schools. These are colleges that you have a very good shot at getting into — where your standardized test scores and GPA are above the 75th percentile for students admitted in previous years. Asian international students have significantly lower acceptance rates (see our blogs on the Asian tax and on international acceptance rates), so if you fall into that category then you should adjust your safety school target to schools where you are significantly above the 75th percentile (e.g. 95th percentile). As the Asian Tax article explains, Asian students must score, on average, 140 points higher on the SAT (out of 1600) than white students. In addition, you might also need to have stand-out extracurricular achievements. For particularly competitive colleges, it is not enough to meet academic standards; you’ll also need to have something that sets you apart from the rest (e.g. a strong Spike) and demonstrates that you can do more than get good grades.
Match schools are those that you’re very likely to get accepted into. While ‘match’ means you have a fairly reasonable chance at getting in, don’t confuse ‘match’ with a ‘guarantee.’ The quantitative analysis looks like this; an applicant can consider a college a match school if her standardized test scores and GPAs falls between the college’s median and 75th percentile for previously admitted students. In other words, you need to be academically better that at least half the other student applying to consider yourself having a fairly reasonable chance at getting in. Asian and international students should adjust their match school target to be at least 75th percentile (academically performing stronger in high school than 75% of applicants). You should pick four schools from your long list that fall in this range. Colleges have a holistic admissions process, so the strength of your essay, recommendations, and extracurriculars will still play an important role in the admission decision. Be honest with yourself — if you’re on the lower end of their academic median and you didn’t do a whole lot outside of class, then maybe you’ll want to re-categorize some match schools as a reach. On the other hand, you if you have strong extracurriculars and your academics are on target with typical admits, then it’s probably safe to categorize that school as a match.
Reach schools are those where you have a low chance of getting accepted, but you still meet academic thresholds. You should quantify a college as a reach if your GPA and SAT scores are between the 25th percentile and the median for previous admits to a college (see our blog on how to make your college list). However, international and Asian students should categorize a school as a reach if your GPA and standardized test scores are around the median for previous admits. Usually, your dream schools where getting in might be a stretch would be considered a reach, but you still have a good chance. In other words, don’t just put in an application for a school where you’re incredibly under-qualified in hopes that they’ll mistakenly slip you into the admit pile. However, do give it a shot if your academics are pretty close and you have a compelling story or Spike that might put you over the edge. In most cases, you should apply Early Decision/Early Action for your reach schools. This is because ED/EA (see our post on ED/EA) typically have higher acceptance rates, so you may have a better shot at getting in. However, do not submit a binding ED application for a reach school for the sake of having a better shot if another school (e.g. match or safety) is actually your top choice. It’s more important that you enroll in a college where you’ll be happy, which might not overlap with the most challenging school on your list.
Note that all highly selective schools (acceptance rates less than 10%) should be considered a reach. Regardless of whether you have perfect grades, perfect SATs, and a great Spike since elite universities are notoriously hard to predict and exceptionally competitive. Also keep in mind if you are below the 25th percentile, your chances of acceptance are quite low. This is especially the case for international students from Asia, who usually have much lower acceptance rates).
College admissions is an arduous and mysterious process. While you can try your best to predict how colleges will respond to your application, there are countless factors that impact their decisions. Having a well-planned distribution of safety, match, and reach schools positions you well for getting into a great school. Below are a few additional factors that you’ll also want to keep in mind as you narrow your college list:
- Percentage of other international students: Most schools tend to value a diverse and international student body, but there are some that admit few international students.
- Program acceptance rates: Consider the acceptance rate for the specific program you’re applying to, which may be different from the overall acceptance rate at the school you’re applying to.
- Legacy points: Many schools give you a boost if you have a sibling who attended.
- School relationship: It’s a good sign if a particular college admits many students from your high school. This shows they trust the caliber of students.
- Financial need: Colleges may be harsher on international students who indicate financial need.
- GPA normalization: Although GPA is important, colleges normalize their GPA internally to account for the rigor of different classes or high schools. Colleges will take into consideration factors that influence GPA, including whether your school has high grade inflation or is exceptionally rigorous.
See if you can help these student identify whether a school is a safety, match, or reach.
Matt from Taipei has a GPA of 4.28 and a 35 on his ACT. He also founded an animal rights club at school that has made a significant impact in his community. Teachers and counselors love him, so his recommendations will be great. His dream is to attend Harvard, which has a 4.10 average GPA, and a 75th percentile ACT score of 35 for its previously admitted students. He’s in pretty good shape, so he can probably consider Harvard a match, right? Wrong! Harvard’s acceptance rate is 5%, so it’s safe to assume that they receive tons of applications from highly qualified students who end up being rejected. When you factor in that Matt is from Asia, you can assume he will also fall under closer scrutiny. While he seems to have a good Spike and his academics are in great shape, elite universities should almost always be categorized as a reach. He’s certainly put his best foot forward, and he will be more competitive than the average student. Even so, Harvard should probably be a Restrictive Early Action application for Matt .
Britney is an Asian student who lives in California. She received a 33 on the ACT and has a 4.1 GPA. She was the founder of a popular student performance group and a strong writer. She hopes to move to the east coast for college and attend NYU. While it’s not her dream school, she is excited about their strong arts program. The 75th percentile for NYU admits’ ACT score is 32, and the average GPA is 3.56. What kind of chance does she have? If you factor in that she is in good standing academically and has a clear passion, then you can probably place NYU as a match for Britney. Her academic indicators are better than most students. If Britney makes sure to share the successes of her student group and leverages her writing skills to write a great essay, she should be in good shape.