College Admissions 101: How to Make Your College List


If you’re entering your senior year, now is the perfect time to start thinking about the college admissions timeline. The College Board recommends students apply to 4-8 schools. According to C2Education, approximately a third of all high school students apply to 7 or more colleges. By September, you should have a running list of colleges that you’re interested in before narrowing them down to your top schools.     

There are three kinds of categories to aim for when you’re creating your college list, which we’ll go into more detail:

  1. Reach 

  2. Target

  3. Safety


1. Reach Schools (or Dream Schools) are colleges where “your academic credentials fall in the lower end, or even below, the school's average range for the cohort of students accepted the previous year.” Similarly, reach schools could be the colleges with higher tuition and fees. 

Caroline Duda, education writer and contributor at US News, advises students to leverage college essays and supplements as a way to stand out:

 “If a reach school appears at the top of your short list for meaningful reasons, be sure to build a compelling case in your application for how you can positively influence the campus.” 


2. Target Schools are colleges where your academic credentials fit within the average of recently accepted students. Take a look at the admissions page to get a sense of the average accepted SAT, GPA, and ACT scores and see where you match up. If you fall within the averages, “it's not unreasonable to expect to be accepted to several of your target schools” says The Princeton Review.  

As you’re applying, remember, “There are no guarantees,” even when you fall within the standards. Apply to 2-3 target schools to increase your odds of getting in to one of your target schools. 

3. Safety Schools are colleges where you’re likely to get accepted. With safety schools, your academic credentials are above the college’s average. Safety schools aren’t just community colleges, either. From Virginia Tech to Purdue University, you have plenty of options for safety schools that have “relatively high admission rates but still have great reputations.“ 

Be sure to use the same criteria to rate and narrow down your safety schools as you do for reach and target schools.  

3 Tips as You Create Your List:

  • Keep your college list manageable. With a focused college list -- no more than 15 schools--you’ll be able to focus more on each of your essays and submit higher quality applications.  The Princeton Review recommends aiming for six colleges, two for each category.

  • Manage your expectations.  Try to remain level-headed and calm. Instead of placing all of your hope in a couple of dream schools, find target and safety schools that you’d also be excited to attend. To help with managing your expectations and excitement, make sure you use the same criteria for reach, target, and safety schools.

  • Visit before you decide. Even if your goal for 5 years has been to go to a certain school, be sure to visit your safety schools as well. You might think you’d be better at a private school, but once you visit the public state school on your safety list, you could discover that’s the right fit for you.  

For a more in-depth look at the different categories and criteria to consider while creating your college list, read our article How to Create an Initial List of Target Colleges