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Best College Fit: Three Categories to Consider

In general, high school students are encouraged to apply to colleges during the summer before their senior year. This creates a doable timeline, one that allows them to choose the best college fit for their needs. People who are going back to school after time in the workforce generally follow the same guidelines—applying to school about 10 to 15 months prior to their targeted start date.

But how many colleges does it make sense to apply to? The Princeton Review recommends: two target schools, two reach schools, and two safety schools. Selecting a thoughtful balance of schools generally leads to less stress throughout the application process, especially when compared to students who apply to dozens of universities, expecting responses from all.

By carefully curating a list of schools, students are generally left with options within their financial reach and a little less anxiety. Although no one application strategy applies to every single student, hopefully this list is a good starting point.

What’s the Best College Fit for You?

There are so many options when it comes to college. Should you travel across the country to attend college or stay closer to home? Would you be happier at a large public university, or at a small liberal arts college? While applying to schools, it’s important to evaluate your needs, personality, and academic interests to find the best college fit for you.

There are plenty of tools and resources online, like the one at Education Planner , to help you pinpoint what’s most important for you. Once you’ve determined what you want most in a school, searching for a college becomes a little bit easier. If you’re not sure what exactly you’re looking for, start by speaking with your school’s guidance counselors and get input from family and friends who have already been through the application process.

Once you have done a little bit of research and have a good sense of what kind of college you want to attend, brainstorm a list of colleges. As you build your list, remember to select a couple that fit into each of these categories: match or target schools, reach schools, and safety schools.

In addition to grades, coursework, and SAT or ACT scores, most college application processes will also evaluate extracurricular activities and college admissions essay. When it comes to extracurricular activities, start by listing out the activities you participate in outside of school, such as sports, organized clubs, hobbies, after school jobs, and community service.

If you held a leadership role in an organization, be sure to indicate that. If you’re an adult going back to school, obviously you haven’t been senior class president within the last year, and that’s okay. Instead, share with the admissions committee what you’ve been doing—how are you earning money or side hustling? Are you involved in any volunteer work?

Then, prioritize activities from most important to least important, based on the time dedicated to the activity or project, the degree of leadership you’ve displayed, and how important this activity is to you. The goal is to present a well-rounded person to the admissions committee.

You’ll also have to write a carefully crafted and thoughtful college essay. Try brainstorming a few ideas; the topic should be important to you, compelling to the admissions officer, and should give the admissions committee a sense of who you are as a person.

What is a Match School?

A match school, also known as a target school, is a school where your academic qualifications meet, or somewhat exceed, what the school has recently been accepting as an average freshman. These qualifications may include your grade point average, individual grades, coursework taken, and ACT or SAT scores. Aligning with these qualifications doesn’t guarantee you admission, but it can help you feel more secure in your application.

There are never any guarantees when you apply to college, of course, but when you apply to a match school, it’s likely you will be accepted. Applying to one or two match schools a wise decision, as a match school may ultimately end up being your best option should you not be accepted by your dream school.

What is a Reach School?

When applying to a reach school, a student’s academic qualifications are below what the school typically requires for the average freshman. While an application to a reach school isn’t an automatic decline, it also shouldn’t be impossible. How, though, can you tell if a particular school is a reach—or the impossible dream?

Take a look at the basic requirements of the school and make sure you meet them. Then, compare yourself to the average accepted applicant. If you’re slightly below the average, apply. It’s possible that your extracurricular activities or leadership roles could push you over the top.

What is a Safety School?

When you apply to a safety school, you can be fairly confident you will be admitted, because your academic qualifications put you above what they typically require for an average freshman. While a safety school may not be your dream, it makes sense to apply to at least one or two of these options.
If nothing else, a safety school provides a backup option should your target or reach schools not work out. If you’ve heard horror stories of students who got rejected by all of the colleges they applied to and worried it might happen to you, you may not want to skip the safety school. While it’s unlikely to happen, taking the time to apply a safety school will gives you a comfortable net.

There are even schools that will guarantee you admission if you have a certain GPA and SAT/ACT score combination. Typically, it is state schools that offer these guarantees to in-state residents—some states even have automatic admission programs. Consult your school counselor for more information on your state’s status.

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