Safeties, Matches, and Reaches: Building a College List

One of the most daunting aspects of applying to colleges is actually deciding where to apply to college. But where do you start looking, and how do you create a good list?

Why Creating a List is Important

Drafting a college list for the first time is an important tool to assess how your expectations align with that of the colleges you are interested in. With the Common App, the new Coalition App, and countless other college-specific applications, there are more ways to apply to schools than than ever. Drafting a list of colleges saves time and keeps you focused on the applications themselves by giving you a sense of control in the application process.

In addition, by curating a solid range of colleges to apply to, you are increasing your chances for success and expanding your options for where to go to college. Ideally, a good range of colleges ensures that you will find the best fit for you academically, financially, and socially, which can influence your entire college experience.

Safeties, Matches, and Reaches

While it may be tempting to apply to as many colleges as possible, quantity alone does not guarantee success in admission. Instead, you should consider a wide variety of colleges when forming your list. Safeties, matches, and reaches should readily be in your head when drafting a list.

A safety school is a college in which you will almost certainly get into as a result of your standardized test scores, GPA, and grades exceeding the median for that of admitted students. Safety schools are like a back-up and are a solid foundation for which you can be assured in moving forward with the application process. It's important to note that the safeties you apply to should also be schools you would be happy attending.

At the middle of the spectrum are match schools, which are colleges or universities at which you are likely to be admitted to because of your scores and grades being similar to that of admitted students. It's important to note that matches are not guaranteed admission; however, with good essays and extracurriculars, it is reasonably possible to be accepted to them.

Reach schools are schools where you have a small chance of getting accepted. For some students, certain colleges are reaches because their scores and grades are less than that of admitted students. More commonly, though, elite institutions such as Harvard and Stanford are considered reaches as a result of their low acceptance rates coupled with high admissions standards, which make them difficult to gain acceptance to even with exceptional profiles.

In general, we recommend that students start with a strong mix of safeties, matches, and reaches, and then add more colleges as they continue to research other institutions. The key word here is variety: applying to only reach schools dramatically reduces the chance for a student's success in admission, but applying to only safety schools diminishes the potential for a student to find their best fit college. A good mixture across an entire spectrum of colleges is the best way to guarantee success.

Other Factors to Consider

Beyond categorizing colleges into safeties, matches, and reaches, there are many other factors that you should consider when curating a list; name recognition of the college alone is not a good measure for where you will attain the best education for your chosen major. Financial aid, scholarships, your tentative major, location, and more may play an integral role as you decide to apply to universities. Many colleges even offer financial aid calculators on their website to help you determine initially what kind of aid you can expect to receive.

And finally, there is no magic number of schools to apply to in order to get the best possible outcome. However, you can gauge how well you curated your list based on how many colleges you chose to select. If you have fewer than five colleges on your list, you may need to go back and consider adding more to strike a good balance among safeties, matches, and reaches; if you have 30 or more, you may need to narrow your criteria and look at colleges more critically. At Synocate, we've found a sweet spot with our students applying to 10-20 colleges, with particularly high-achieving seniors applying to more reaches.

Ultimately, research is an incredibly important starting point to the college application process and can help you devote more time perfecting your application down the line. Check out our admissions data and college profiles here
to start researching about different colleges.

Need help refining your college list? Our team of admissions experts here at Synocate are ready to help. Contact us today to get started on your application.