College Admissions

Choose Your Highly Likely Colleges Carefully

One of my students recently told me she had her “safe” schools, and she tossed off the names of a couple universities where she will easily be admitted. But she hadn’t visited or researched the schools, and she couldn’t tell me one thing she liked about either school. She also did not want to discuss them. It was almost as if talking about the schools meant she could actually end up going to one of them. When she said she’d rather concentrate on the colleges she really likes, I told her she should really like her “safe” schools, and perhaps the first step was to call them “highly likely” rather than safe, since we tend to devalue things that come too easily.

The biggest problem with not having any interest in the colleges that are most likely to admit you is that when April comes around, those schools could be your only options, especially if most of your applications are to “reach” schools. If you haven’t applied to at least one or two schools that are both accessible and a good fit, you could end up without any appealing choices. You may feel stressed now, but imagine how you’ll feel in six months if your only option is a school that you never took seriously.

So choose your highly likely schools carefully. The only reason to apply to a college is if you would be willing to attend that school. You need to spend as much time on the schools that are likely to admit you as you do on the schools that are likely to reject you. Start by identifying the characteristics you like about your favorite colleges. Whether you’re looking for a certain academic program, internship opportunities, big sports and school spirit, active Greek life or an urban location, you can find these things at schools where you will be admitted. You just need to be open to the many wonderful possibilities.

It’s not always easy to figure out whether a college is a highly likely admit, partly because your chances can actually change from one year to the next. If a school enrolls a bigger than anticipated freshman class, it may admit fewer students the next year and your admission prospects may move from highly likely to possible. If a public university has funding cuts, it may be more selective and no longer a highly likely admit. Then again, if you are a nonresident student applying to that public university, the need for out of state tuition dollars might make it a highly likely admit for you.

In general, you can get an idea of your chances by looking at a school’s freshman profile. Instead of reporting an average SAT score or grade point average, many colleges report a 25 – 75 percent range, meaning that 25 percent of admitted (or sometimes matriculated) students are below that range, 50 percent are within the range, and 25 percent are above the range. When your GPA and test scores are above the 75th percentile, at most colleges this means you are highly likely to be admitted, because while many colleges look at extracurricular activities, recommendations and essays, your academic record is much more important.

But you cannot assume anything at very selective schools. If you are applying to the Ivies, Stanford, Tufts, Duke, or any school where the acceptance rate is below 30%, even if your grades and scores are at the upper end of the applicant pool, you need to consider the school a reach. At these schools, a stellar academic record is just the first step in the competition for a place in the freshman class.

It’s understandable, given the job market that recent college graduates have encountered, that many high school students are more concerned than ever with getting into the “best” college. They want to know that they will have good job prospects in the future. And their parents would rather spend the money on a school they perceive as securing their children’s future.

But there are advantages to “highly likely” schools. You might get a merit scholarship that would bring the cost down considerably. If you are one of the stronger students at your college, you may have a better chance of earning top grades, especially in science classes where exams can be graded on a curve, and that can be important for pre-med students. One student who ended up at her highly likely school was initially disappointed that she wouldn’t have the prestige of an Ivy, but she got an excellent education, made good friends, built her confidence when professors recognized her as one of their brightest students, graduated with no debt because of the scholarship she’d received, and will soon graduate from an Ivy League law school.

If you have carefully chosen your highly likely schools, they will be colleges where you can be just as happy as you would be at the more selective schools. If you do end up at one of these schools, the sting of rejection by your first choice school will pass quickly. Once you are on campus, you will find other interesting students and get involved in campus life, and the prestige factor will be much less important than the great experiences you are having.