Making Your College List: Likely Schools, Target Schools, Reach Schools
So whether you plan to apply Early Decision or Regular Decision, you should be ready to apply to a list of schools. But how many options should you give yourself? How many schools should be on your college list?
You should plan to apply to at least five or six schools, and perhaps as many as 10. Really, the only limits on the number of schools you apply to are your time and application fees, and some students do apply to dozens of schools (or to every Ivy League school) each year. But those application fees do add up, and for most it doesn't make sense to apply to that many schools. Instead you should focus on making a list of schools that are good fits for you.
The common approach is to organize your list into three categories based on competitiveness and apply to two or three from each category:
- Likely Schools: Schools where you believe you'll get in if you apply because your grades and/or test scores significantly exceed the college's averages for admission.
- Target Schools: Schools where your grades and/or test scores are in line with the college's averages for admission, and you think your chances of getting in are around 50-50.
- Reach Schools: Schools that you'd like to attend but think may be a stretch based on how your high school experience compares to their admissions criteria and competitiveness. If you fall in love with a college with a low acceptance rate, you'll want to put it here, and consider it a candidate for applying Early Decision.
Will Colleges Know How Many Schools I Apply To?
Colleges are primarily concerned with your individual merit and how you'll fit into their campus community. It's common for students to apply to five, 10, 15 or more schools, and even a large number is unlikely to raise an eyebrow, assuming a college pays attention to it at all.
That isn't to say you should apply to dozens of colleges; besides the cost, you'll also be making your decision about which school to choose more difficult in the end. At this stage, don't sweat too hard about whether you'll get in or put a school on top of your list because of prestige or name recognition alone.
Choosing a college should first-and-foremost be about finding the type of school that's right for you. Once you figure that out, you'll have an easier time finding similar schools (or schools that offer similar experiences) that are both likely bets or more of a stretch for you. And even if one rises above others, you can also feel certain you'll be happy at any of them.
Below are some more tips and things to keep in mind as you assemble and organize your college list.
The Right Campus Fit
There are a lot of different types of schools out there, from giant state and land-grant universities that feel like small cities to quaint rural campuses with just a few hundred students. There are schools that specialize in areas like engineering, science and the arts, and ones that take a more rounded approach.
Before considering specific schools or campuses, spend some time thinking about what you'll value most in a college experience. Do you want to go to school in a city with rich off-campus opportunities or do you want to immerse yourself in campus life by “going off to college” at a school in the country? Do you want to go to a place where all your professors will know you by name and you’ll feel like part of a tight campus community, or are you drawn to the idea of a larger campus? Do you want to live on campus all four years?
The best way to start figuring out what you're looking for, under ideal circumstances, is to visit a range of different types of schools, like an urban campus in your city or one nearby, as well as colleges in more rural and suburban areas; a large state university along with smaller and mid-size schools. Even if these aren't the schools you end up applying to, hopefully these visits will give you a sense of what feels right for you, and what you're looking for in a college experience. At the least you'll come across a few things you know you don't want.
COVID-19 has made arranging those visits more challenging, or limited what you can experience when you're on campus, but colleges also offer alternative ways to explore life in their classrooms and residence halls. Whether you're able to visit or not, look for virtual tours (Bucknell's is here) or ways to connect with students and faculty at colleges you might be interested in, and sign up for their mailing lists so you receive their viewbook and invitations to in-person or online events. Also check their social media and YouTube channels — you may find a student-run account that gives you a less filtered look at life on campus. If you have friends or relatives who are now in college, ask them what they like and don't like about their schools. Try to think not just about the experience they're having but what you might or might not enjoy about it. Use it all to create a picture of what you're looking for in a college experience — a picture you can turn to when making your list.
(In addition to in-person visits, Bucknell offers an audio driving tour for visitors to explore our campus from the safety of their cars as well as a virtual tour and welcome center with all the admissions publications you'll find in our real admissions lobby in Freas Hall, plus a video of the same preview session we give at the start of our campus tours. You can also get an inside view of student life by following our student-run instagram account, @iamraybucknell.)