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Don't Make This Mistake With Your College List

Growing up I used to watch March Madness with my dad. I never played basketball myself—except for that one season when my dad made me play on our synagogue team because he was the coach! But I have always loved watching the game.

Just this weekend, my parents came to visit. Low and behold, my dad quietly escaped to the sun porch to watch another year of March Madness. That means another year of me considering the highs and lows of such a beautiful game. I love March Madness. It's all about college kids and their stories.

I try to avoid sports analogies when describing the college admissions process. Admissions officers hate it when students do it in essays. But since I am no longer a student nor an admissions officer, here I go...

In the spirit of basketball, don't ever overshoot. It is the biggest issue I am seeing with Class of 2022 students who are unhappy with their admissions decisions and the many college lists I am reviewing right now for the Class of 2023. 
 

What is overshooting?

It is when a student is either applying to colleges that are objectively "out of reach" for them, or when the student has too many "reach" colleges and not enough "target" and "likely" colleges.

Why is this problematic? 

We are in a different landscape with college admissions. Long gone are the days when a student could get admitted to an "out of reach" college. Nowadays, at the bare minimum, a student needs to be objectively competitive (in terms of curriculum, GPA, and test scores if reported) just to be taken seriously by a selective college. The only exception is if the student is a recruited athlete or coming from an underrepresented background, community, or state.  
 
When a student overshoots and puts too many "out of reach" colleges on the list, they are disappointed. Most of all, it is difficult for the student to invest and believe in the colleges on their list that are within reach.
 

How can you avoid overshooting?

Just like a basketball player, know your strengths and limits. Be honest about them with yourself. For example, a highly selective college will expect "near perfection" when it comes to advanced coursework in all subject matters, grades, and scores. If that description doesn't fit, you are not alone. Good news? Most colleges are a lot more generous and forgiving. 
 

How do you know how many and which colleges to apply to?

I recommend nine to twelve colleges on a student's list. Any more and you are completely overwhelmed with supplemental essays and other requirements. Any less and you run the risk of not having enough viable options to make a sound decision. 
 
You also want your list to include an equal number of reach, target, and likely colleges.Your reach, target, and likely colleges are determined by what type of student you are. If you need more help with this, read my book, Soundbite, or join Application Nation!

What can change your admissions outcomes?

I mentioned that if you are a recruited athlete or an underrepresented student for a particular college, you might have more wiggle room. If not, consider an Early Decision program for one of your reach colleges as long as it is still "within reach" for you. Apply to some Early Action and Rolling Admissions programs. Why? Because you will get back some early results. If you are not seeing any early acceptances, especially among your Rolling Admissions programs, that usually means you are overshooting. You still have time to adjust your list for Regular Decision if you got back some early results that were not what you were expecting.


READ MORE: How to Make the Most of Your Summer Break



There is often a Cinderella story in March Madness. St. Peter's University seems to fit that description this year, beating top-ranked Kentucky and Murray State. There used to be a lot of Cinderella stories in the college admissions process too. But as students' college lists get longer and colleges receive more applications than ever before, there is little to no room for a really special student to get admitted to a college where they are least expecting it. 
 
Am I sad, frustrated, and angry at times for how the college admissions process has evolved? You bet, I am. But the response is to not feed the endless abyss of applications when you know a college won't give you a fair shake. Visit, apply, and enroll at the college that still gives you a shot—a shot that will undoubtedly change your life for the better. If you don't believe me, watch St. Peter's next game. I don't care if they win or lose, I see a group of college students experiencing something extraordinary because St. Peter's gave them the ultimate shot.