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College Admissions 101: Determining a College List

Many students and parents worry about a college major or the essays, but the first major step is really the college list. The college list is a list of schools that a student chooses to apply to.
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Many students and parents worry about a college major or the essays, but the first major step is really the college list. The college list is a list of schools that a student chooses to apply to. Many high school juniors and their parents should start working on this list now and refine it over time before schools release their essays in early August.

In this article, we will introduce macro trends in admissions that affect the college list process, our method of selecting colleges at Synocate, a tool that may be useful in this process that we are developing, and final words of wisdom.

Macro Trends in College Admissions

Students are applying to more colleges across the spectrum and are using more and more sophisticated strategies in their college list process. In addition, we've seen more juniors approach us with the goal of using junior year summer as a boost for college applications.

Most sources say that students should apply to 5-8 colleges.

This number has grown significantly in the past 10 years as colleges have received exponentially as many applications for the same number of spots. There is a subset of students, usually those applying to Top 20 colleges, that are applying to 15+ colleges in an attempt to hedge their bets.

Why Colleges Like It

Colleges get paid an application fee for each application, and their acceptance rate goes down as application count goes up. In addition, they are better able to pick students who are more likely to attend their college -- increasing a figure called yield. Yield is the percentage of students that accept an offer if extended. Yield is often a term that is used as a proxy for selectively or desirability, and is a leading indicator of a college's popularity.

Because of these factors, colleges are incentivized to keep the trend going: keep regular decision as it stands and increase the application volume.

Implications For Students

For students, this means that you should really apply to more schools rather than less. Many schools offer a fee waiver for the application fee (which is usually $50-$100 per college). The major difference is the number of essay you have to write to apply to these colleges.

Most colleges will have students write 5-10 short and long response essays each. Our general recommendation is for students to apply to ~15 colleges, meaning that they need to write ~60 essays, of which some can be recycled partially.

Methods for College List Generation

Many college counselors and parents hear about a three-tiered system to choosing colleges to apply to -- safety, target, and reach. So if you are applying to nine schools, you would have three safety schools that you are sure you will be accepted to, three targets where you should be accepted, and three reach schools where you hope to get in but chances are low.

At Synocate, we think about it in a 5-tier approach that breaks out the nuances between the different stages. The difference between target and reach in particular is a tricky matter. For example, there are students with a high SAT/ACT but lower GPA that would not fall cleanly into target or reach at many colleges like the UC system. On the other end of the spectrum, many students with high grades do not properly categorize schools as reach and instead have a college list that is very risky.

With this 5-tier approach, we break out the list as: safety, target, challenge, reach, and high reach. We have three types of college lists with this approach: conservative, balanced, and aggressive. These each have a specific weighting for the percentage of total colleges in each of the 5 buckets. Each list includes 15 schools which includes UC and other systems as 1 application.

In this way, we hedge our bets enough and we are able to give students a choice in the process to empower them. We tend to be more conservative on the bucketing of schools, but always want to include at least one high reach.

Our Tool For College Selection

In an effort to make this very important part of admissions easier we have developed a free tool for students and parents. Over the past year, we have been developing and testing a tool that takes in your numbers (GPA, SAT, SAT II, etc.) and extracurricular activities and calculates a proprietary score. This is similar to the academic index but is more robust. It is meant as a guide and not a definitive answer to your chances of admissions.

The tool can then generate a college list using the above methodology, which we hope will help thousands of high school students across the world in the admissions process.

You can visit it here.

It also contains over 600 summer activities that are searchable, and information about each college. We currently have the Top 70 colleges online.

Final Words of Wisdom

College admissions is tough, stressful, and scary. But that does not mean we should not embrace it as a moment of self-reflection. It may even be broken, but it does teach us about ourselves through intense introspection. The first and most important step is choosing which colleges to apply to and how many. Think carefully about which buckets these fall into, but also separate the categories out more than the typical safety, target, and reach.

At our admissions consultancy, we use five tiers and have three types of lists based on student risk tolerance levels. We have developed a free tool for students to use ( that uses these insights.

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