Choosing a College Planning for College

Step 5: Putting Together Your Final College Selection List

Written by CB Experts

Your college selection list is the list of colleges to which you will make application. You have taken the time to match your interests and needs to find possible colleges, but you must also be realistic about your chances for acceptance. The application process is far too time-consuming and expensive to apply willy-nilly. Your college selection list should be well considered, and it should balance the money you spend applying with the likelihood of your getting into the colleges you’re applying to.

Therefore, you need to be completely objective in your evaluation of your academic qualifications and balance these qualifications with the admission selectivity of your college choices.

Three Tiers of College Selectivity

The worst mistake of all in the college admissions process is to apply to too many selective schools where your chances of gaining acceptance are quite low or applying to too many schools where you are sure to get in. You need to BALANCE selective schools with safety schools, shooting neither too high nor too low. Your college choices should be distributed within a range of selectivity to give you the best possible chance at getting into a wide variety of schools.

There are three admission tiers of selectivity:

  • Reach Schools or dream schools which will be difficult to get into
  • Probable Schools or 50/50 schools you will probably get into
  • Safety Schools, almost sure-admit schools

*You should also consider adding a Financial Safety School to your other Safety Schools.

The Three Tiers: Defined by Probability of Admission

What exactly do we mean by a Reach School, a Probable School, or a Safety School? As you will see, each category is defined by the probability of your being accepted to the college.


Reach Schools

Reach Schools are those schools where your chances of admission are less than 50% or possibly even lower if you are planning to apply to a selective school like an Ivy League college such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Remember, too, that not everyone’s Reach School should be an Ivy League caliber school. You must be realistic and keep in mind your ability level, motivation, needs, and interests.

Probable Schools

Probably Schools are just that — you will probably get in, but it still is not a certainty. At these colleges you have a slightly greater than 50/50 chance of gaining admission. The majority of the colleges you end up applying to should be from this category because they should be the best fit for you academically.

Safety Schools

Safety Schools are colleges at which there is a 90% likelihood of admission.

Warning! There is no certainty of admission to any school, even in this category, because a flaw in your application, a poor recommendation, or a tone of arrogance in your essays might result in a denial of admission even if your academic achievement is stellar. However, there is one exception; you might apply to a state school which offers guaranteed admission, regardless of such flaws, if you meet the standards of admission.

Financial Safety School

A Financial Safety School is a college that you have a high probability for admission AND you can afford to attend even if you do NOT get much financial assistance.

Categorize Your College Choices Using the Three Tiers

How do you know which school is a Reach, a Probable, or a Safety School? For our purposes, we will consider objective criteria: your test scores, your academic achievement in high school, and the profile of students admitted to each college.

Start by returning to your research that shows the average SAT or ACT score, GPA, and class rank percentile of freshmen students admitted to each of the colleges. Then compare your scores with the data you collected on each school. Finally, list the school under the appropriate category: Reach, Probably, or Safety, using the results of your comparison.

If your SAT scores on any subtest are significantly below the average SAT score of those admitted (100 or more points) and/or your GPA is a letter grade lower, then you should place the selected college in the Reach category.

Special Tips:

  • Those colleges that accept only 20% or less of their applicants should be considered a Reach even though your academic profile is comparable to their admitted students.
  • If your SATs are less than 75 points lower on any subtest and your grades are near or slightly above the average grade of those admitted, place the college in the Probable category.
  • If your SATs and grades are significantly higher than those of the average admitted student, place the college in the Safety category.
  • If your SATs are more than 100 points higher on each subtest than the average entering freshman, you might want to reconsider applying to this college because you might find yourself bored and not challenged academically after you are enrolled.

The Balance of Your College Selection List

It is important to abide by the commonly used ratio of 2:3:2 when selecting colleges, that is, your final cut you should have two Reach Schools, three Probable Schools, and two Safety Schools.

If you really want more than two Reach Schools, then you must add to the other two categories to keep your selection balanced, i.e., 3:4:3 or 4:5:4, etc.

Now take a close look at each category. It is very important that you are realistic about your credentials. Have you set your goals too high; do you have too many Reach Schools? If so, you probably should eliminate a few right now, particularly those where you are way below the median scores in BOTH SAT results and GPA. Make sure also that you have not underestimated yourself by having too many Safety Schools.

Last Words of Advice

  • Always apply to at least one Reach School if you are within reach of their average stats. Dreams DO come true, but first you have to apply to have a chance.
  • If you do not receive one letter of rejection, then you haven’t reached high enough!! Take the risk; go for your dream!
  • Probably the most difficult schools to find and to be happy with are the Safeties. Make sure they fit you both socially and academically.
  •, under its Funding College section, has a great list of non-financial considerations to use for evaluating college choice. Their categories will give you a good list for both thinking about colleges and comparaing them.

At this point you need to visit each of the colleges on your college selection list so that you can see and “get a feel” for the college to determine if it really does fit you. Read on and learn all you need to know about College Visits!

About the author

CB Experts

Content created by retired College Admissions consultants.