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How to Build a Balanced College List

A few days ago a parent of a high school senior mentioned that their child did not get into their "safety" college, New York University. I gasped.

First, there are no "safety" colleges these days with acceptance rates plummeting. Second, many colleges, even with higher acceptance rates, deliberately do not accept high-achieving students who haven't shown "demonstrated interest" in them. And, third, NYU's acceptance rate this year is 12.8%. That means NYU is one of the most selective colleges in the U.S.

It reminded me that we all need to adjust our sense of selectivity when it comes to building a college list. Here are five top tips to ensure you have a balanced college list for you:

1. Rely on the college's most recent acceptance rate listed on its website. 

This is the most accurate acceptance rate you can get your hands on. Blogs, guides, and other resources are often not as updated. You can find the college's most recent acceptance rate by going to its admissions website OR calculating the acceptance rate yourself using the college's Common Data Set.

2. If a college has an Early Decision program and you plan to apply to it, you can guarantee that the acceptance rate will be higher in Early Decision. 

However, it is absolutely essential that you are "competitive" for that college on your own. Early Decision is no longer a program that should be used as a way to get admitted to a college that is "out of reach."

3. If you plan to apply Early Action or Regular Decision to a college that has an Early Decision program, you should be highly competitive on all fronts.

A college's acceptance rates for Early Action and Regular Decision are not nearly as generous as Early Decision.  

4. Visit and investigate all types of colleges: reach, target, and likely. 

Students who only visit reach colleges, will have a hard time adding target and likely schools to their list. When you visit a reach college, make sure you add a target and likely college to visit as well.

Related Reading: 5 Tips for College Visits in 2021

5. For a public or state university that values in-state applicants, the acceptance rate will drop for out-of-state applicants.

As you look at a public or state university's acceptance rate, it is usually an overall acceptance rate. They usually don't provide a breakdown of what the acceptance rates are for in-state applicants and out-of-state applicants. Unless otherwise indicated, it will be harder to get admitted to this type of institution as an out-of-state applicant. 
The definition of a reach, target, and likely college will vary tremendously depending on the student you are. If you want to ensure that you have a well-balanced college list, check out Chapter 11 in my new book, Soundbite, or join Application Nation where I review students' college lists during their junior or senior year!