Do you know how to improve your profile for college applications?
See how your profile ranks among thousands of other students using CollegeVine. Calculate your chances at your dream schools and learn what areas you need to improve right now — it only takes 3 minutes and it's 100% free.
Show me what areas I need to improve
- What Are Reach, Target, and Safety Schools?
- Factors that Impact Your Chances
- Elements of a Balanced College List
Creating a school list is an important-yet-tricky step in the college application process. A strategically constructed school list weighs your desire to attend reach schools—the institutions you dream about going to—along with safety schools where you’re very likely to secure admission. Consequently, the ideal school list is balanced between reach, target, and safety schools, allowing you to shoot for the stars while also ensuring admission into at least one school.
What Are Reach, Target, and Safety Schools?
“Reach,” “safety,” and “target” are common terms used in college applications to describe the odds a student has of getting accepted at a particular institution. Understanding these terms, and which categories colleges fall into, is a critical step in the application process.
What is a Reach School?
Reach schools are colleges where you have less than a 15% chance of admission (this is your personal chance of acceptance, not the school’s acceptance rate). Keep in mind that schools with less than a 10% acceptance rate are reaches for everyone. These schools are extremely competitive and even students with profiles that align or exceed those of accepted students cannot be confident they’ll gain admission. A school may also be a reach if your grades and test scores are below the averages of accepted students.
What is a Target School?
A target school is a college where you have a 15-70% chance of admission. Within target schools, we split them up into hard targets (15-45% chance) and regular targets (45-70%) in our chancing engine.
Unless the school is very selective, how your SAT/ACT score compares to its middle 50% test scores is a decent indicator of whether a school is a target (the middle 50% is the range of scores between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile of accepted students). There are no guarantees of getting into a target school, but you should feel good about your chances of admission into a target school, though hard targets are definitely a bit iffier.
What is a Safety School?
Safety schools are colleges where you have a greater than 70% chance of acceptance. Having test scores better than the 75th percentile of students is a good indicator that a college is a safety school. Having a strong chance of getting into a college is a major factor when choosing a safety school, but you should also feel excited about it, and want to attend if you’re accepted.
Factors that Impact Your Chances
Middle 50% test scores can suggest your odds at a particular institution, but the admissions process is far more complex than a single score and considers a variety of factors.
Grades and Test Scores
Grades and test scores play a considerable role in college admissions, making up over a third of what Top 250 colleges deem important. In addition to demonstrating a student’s effort, determination, and aptitude, grades are also predictive of college performance. And it’s not just not the grades you get, but the courses you take—colleges are interested in academically rigorous students who have pursued challenging coursework, such as AP classes.
Test scores also play a key role in college admissions, as they can confirm a student’s grades and demonstrate preparedness for college. Test scores and grades are also used by highly selective schools that receive large numbers of applications to weed out weak candidates, though this has changed due to Covid test-optional policies.
Extracurricular activities are an important criteria colleges use when deciding who to accept and can account for as much as a quarter of an admissions decision. Extracurricular activities give colleges perspective into who students are outside of the classroom and highlight a student’s passions and interests. Try to focus on a few activities and dedicate yourself to them, rather than lightly involving yourself in a lot of different activities.
Not all extracurricular activities are equal, however—the rarer and more impressive the activity, the greater sway it has with admissions officers. For example, winning a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award is far more impactful than playing in your school’s marching band.
Essays can also make up to a quarter of admissions decisions. Essays provide students a chance to show off their writing skills, craft a narrative about themselves, and wow admissions officers—a winning essay is personal, demonstrates what makes you special, and will leave a college hoping to have you on campus. In cases where an admissions decision is between two competing candidates, a great essay is often the tiebreaker.
Letters of Recommendation and Interviews
Letters of recommendation and interviews play a smaller role than factors like test scores, grades, and extracurricular activities in admissions—accounting for just 10% of an admissions decision. Having a relationship with a teacher, advisor, or coach who knows you personally and will tout your strengths can give your application a boost.
Your college interview is another way to improve your prospects of admissions. Treat interviews seriously by preparing for them—know how to dress, ask the right questions, and be sure to demonstrate a mature, college-ready attitude.
Other Factors: Financial Need, Major, and Ethnicity
In addition to the major metrics, a handful of smaller factors also are considered in college admissions.
Financial Need: Depending on what schools you’re applying to, your financial need can factor into admissions decisions. Need-blind colleges do not consider financial need in admissions, but need-aware schools do consider it. Hypothetically, at need-aware colleges, an admissions officer can use a student’s ability to pay to make a selection between two competitive candidates.
Major: In general, your intended major will not play a significant role in admissions decisions, with the exception being students applying for competitive programs or different schools within a university. For example, it’s significantly more challenging to get into Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science program than it is to get into the school on the whole—the School of Computer Science has a 7% acceptance rate, while the rest of Carnegie Mellon admits more than 20% of applicants on average.
Ethnicity: Race/ethnicity plays a minor role in some college admissions decisions—a 2014 study from National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that just 3.4% percent of colleges reported race/ethnicity having “considerable influence” on decisions, and another 11.1% saying it had a “moderate” influence. That said, colleges strive to cultivate diverse student bodies representing a variety of students from different backgrounds. How ethnicity factors into decisions can take a myriad of shapes; for instance, Harvard recently defended itself in court against accusations they discriminate against Asian American students.
Elements of a Balanced College List
There is no magic number for how many colleges you should apply to. The College Board—the organization that administers the SAT—recommends between five and eight, while a 2015 report from the NACAC found that 36% of enrolled first-time freshmen had applied to seven or more colleges. A safe bet is to apply to at least 8 colleges, consisting of 2 reach schools, 4 target schools, and 2 safety schools.
How to Find Schools for Your College List
1. Figure out what’s important to you.
“Fit” (how a college aligns with your academic, social, and financial needs) is a great way to begin building your college list with intention. Consider aspects like size, location, major, extracurricular activities, and diversity. For example, if warm weather is key to your happiness, you’re going to struggle to enjoy your time at the University of Chicago, no matter how great of a school it is (but you may like Pomona College).
2. Use CollegeVine’s school search tool and chancing engine.
Our free school search tool allows you to find schools based on characteristics like size, location, majors, diversity, and more. This can help you discover colleges you might have otherwise not known were a good fit, and can help you eliminate colleges based on “non-negotiables.”
The tool also can estimate your chances of acceptance based on factors like your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and demographics. The chancing engine will characterize over 500 colleges across the U.S. as Reaches, Long Reaches, Targets, Hard Targets, and Safeties to make building a college list straightforward.
3. Eliminate schools until you have a manageable and balanced list.
Make a list of all things that are really important in a school—for example, a university or LAC; urban, suburban, or rural; a large student body or small student body; in-state or out-of-state—and start cutting the ones that don’t meet your high-priority needs. Another effective tool for paring down your college list is to cut colleges that aren’t able to provide sufficient financial aid, if that’s a concern.