Many applicants and their families wonder how many schools they should apply to, and what mix of reach, target, and safety school applications they should work on. We at Bentham recommend making an accurate assessment of your standing relative to other applicants to selective colleges (consulting Bentham Admissions would be very helpful here), and then only apply to those schools where the applicant is competitive, with a safety school or two thrown in. I am sure you find this advice disappointing. People hire admissions consultants hoping they know shortcuts and “open sesame” tricks to get through those ivied gates, but in fact, the value of a consultant is to provide sound systematic common sense advice in a process that causes reasonable and intelligent applicants and their families to lose their minds.
Applying to college is obviously not like going to a casino. The admissions office has your transcript, which tells them not only your grades but also the rigor of your courses. They also have your test scores, your recommendations, your ranking in your class, your activities list, your leadership positions, and several essay responses you have written to prompts carefully calibrated to give the admissions officer everything they need to evaluate your candidacy. The element of chance is more minimal than you think. To indulge in casino speak, you can’t beat the house.
And yet, very intelligent and rational applicants, and, particularly, their parents, like to take a gamble on schools where the odds of winning admittance are nil (nil means zero), even though these same individuals would never play roulette. If you are applying to Harvard REA (restricted early admission) and you have not, say, won national math championships or published lab research in an esteemed journal, play roulette instead. Your chances are better there.
How to find your reach, target, and safety schools
The word “reach” misleads applicants and their parents to believe that they should apply to a dream school even if it would be nearly impossible to gain admittance. In reality, you determine your reach schools by determining your target schools. A school where seventy-five percent or more of students like you get admitted should be your target school. You want to have at least a seventy-five percent chance because you want to get in, not deferred or rejected, and because it is more than likely that this year the number of applicants will be even higher than last year, and last year’s seventy-five percent might be this year’s sixty-five percent. The odds are still in your favor, but they wouldn’t be if you set your target lower. If, for example, you applied to a school where last year sixty percent of the applicants had profiles like yours, then this year, with an even higher number of students applying to that school, maybe only fifty percent have a profile like yours, and fifty percent have a stronger profile. That means you have only a fifty percent chance of being admitted – you don’t want to focus your energies on a school where your chances of being admitted come down to a coin flip. Any school where your profile sits above twenty-five percent but below seventy-five percent is a good reach. You have a solid chance of getting in, but it’s not a sure thing. That’s what you should consider a reach. A safety school is one where just about everyone with your profile gets in.
Early Decision/ Early action
Early Decision generally doubles your chances of getting into a selective private school. Because it improves your chances, many applicants make a classic blunder - applying early to a reach school. Getting into any school on an applicant’s list is a challenge, so you want to use your Early Decision advantage on a target school: a school where you are a competitive applicant at or near the seventy-fifth percentile. Why would you burn your best chance of acceptance at a wish school? Don’t gamble your chance away; instead, utilize your Early Decision edge and apply to a school where you have a competitive chance of getting in early. The same applies to Early Action and Early Decision 2.
Also, don’t discount the amount of effort you will invest in applying early. If, for example, you expend a great deal of effort applying to UNC-Chapel Hill early, meeting the Oct. 15 deadline, when the school will only take a very small percentage of its class from out-of-state applicants, you will not have enough time to perfect the EA and ED applications you’re sending off on November first to schools where you have a much better chance. Applying to UNC in this case has increased your chances numerically, but in reality, you are now sending subpar applications to three or more schools, and you might not get into any of them at all.
Some applicants blow their early decision option another way - they don’t use it at all, because they are undecided about where they want to go to school. They haven’t done the research.
Do the research
By the end of an applicant’s Junior year, or at least by the end of that summer, the applicant should have a good idea of a handful of schools that are both desirable and realistic. There are a lot of good schools out there, and rather than hoping you will be accepted at a brand-name school, go looking for schools that you will accept. Schools that have the right environment, and the right resources for your intended major, at the right price. And, find a school where you will be competitive. Google is your friend here, your counselor is better, and Bentham Admissions is best at helping you find the schools where you have a good chance of being accepted and an admissions strategy to get you there. If you don’t do this research, you will be spending rather a lot of money and time flooding the market with your application essays. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all application. Every school will have its own supplementary essays and other requirements, and in the course of laboring through all those applications, you will end up having to do a lot of this research anyway if you are going to write a decent supplement about why each school is a good fit for you. Do this research early, focus on a handful of schools (the College Board recommends between 4 and 8), and spend all of your time making those applications truly excellent. If you'd like professional help navigating this journey, Bentham Admissions is here for you.