Identify the right schools to meet your academic, financial, and lifestyle goals
With over 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, it may seem overwhelming or impossible to figure out where your child should apply.
Of course, you and your child may be familiar with the big-name schools—Harvard, Yale, Stanford, UCLA, etc.—but you may not know what differentiates these schools from one another, nor what other options are available.
Unfortunately, families who are less well-informed about available schools tend to commit one of two major errors while developing their college list:
Applying to too many schools: We’ve heard stories of students who applied to 25+ schools, hoping they will get in somewhere prestigious. This is a poor strategy because the quality of each application will likely decrease with each additional school given limited time and attention.
Applying to familiar schools only: Students will sometimes apply only to their local schools and certain famous schools because those are the only ones they’ve heard of. These students miss out on applying to schools that would have been just as strong a fit for them, if not better. Sometimes even prestigious universities are unfamiliar to students. For instance, we can’t tell you how many times a student interested in attending Harvard or Stanford to study business thought that Penn and UChicago were less prestigious state schools.
The better strategy is to thoroughly research colleges and universities and make well-informed decisions about developing a college list that not only has balance (i.e., “reach”, “target’, and “safety” schools) but also includes only schools that your child would be thrilled to attend. After all, why work so hard for four years just to settle?
To help you navigate the huge world of available US colleges and universities, we’ll highlight what your most important considerations ought to be, in no particular order.
Factor 1: Number of Schools
We already mentioned how applying to a greater number of schools technically increases your admissions odds.
However, when it comes to college admissions—unlike, say, medical school admissions or admissions to certain types of graduate programs—your child is facing the issue of wherethey’ll get in, not ifthey’ll get in somewhere.
We typically recommend creating a school list of 9-12 institutions with the following breakdown:
2-3 “safety” schools. A safety school is one where your child’s GPA and ACT/SAT score exceeds the 75th percentile of admitted students.
4-6 “target” schools. A target school is one where your child’s GPA and ACT/SAT score is somewhere between the 50th and 75th percentile of admitted students.
3 “reach” schools. A reach school is one where your child’s GPA and ACT/SAT score falls between the 25th and 50th percentile of admitted students.
[Optional] 1 “far reach” school. A far reach school is one where your child’s GPA and ACT/SAT score places them below the 25th percentile of admitted students. Please note that is highly unlikely that your child will get into their far reach school.
Note: Highly selective colleges (i.e., those with acceptance rates below 10%, such as Harvard and Stanford) should always be considered a reach or far reach, depending on your child's academic profile. While an incredible extracurricular profile, superb college essays, and applying early decision or restrictive early action will help boost your child's admissions odds, these schools routinely reject students with perfect grades and test scores, making it to difficult to classify them as a target or safety school.
We’d like to circle back to our previous point about applying only to schools that your child would be excited to attend. We routinely observe students applying to schools—typically safety schools or those in undesirable locations for the student—they have no actual desire to attend. With so many available college and universities, and limited time and attention to apply, there’s no reason to include schools that don’t appeal.
Note: If your child is applying to University of California (UC) schools, you should feel free to count them as one school or however many you’re submitting to because they require a single application with the same essay prompts. (aka, personal insight questions) Our massive article on How to Write Great UC Application Essays covers the UC application in great detail.
Note: Grades and test scores aren't everything, not even close. Colleges practice holistic admissions, meaning they will strongly consider your child's background, context, extracurricular achievements, and personal factors when making admission decisions. Still, GPA and ACT/SAT scores provide an excellent foundation for classifying schools' competitiveness. Communicating the qualitative factors mentioned above is best done through your child's application essays, for which we recommend the following resources (numerous examples are included in each article):
Factor 2: Majors, Programs, and Opportunities
Universities, even those within the same tier, offer significantly different majors, programs, and opportunities to their students that warrant a closer look before your child adds them to their school list.
For example, take Cornell and Dartmouth, prestigious Ivy League universities in rural settings. If your child is interested in pursuing a career in agriculture or hotel management, Cornell may be the better fit because they offer majors in Agricultural Sciences and Hotel Administration that most other top-tier schools do not.
While your child may change their mind about their major during college, we encourage them to consider some intriguing areas to ensure that the schools on their list can accommodate evolving interests.
Is your child interested in pursuing journalism, with an eye toward covering news in the Middle East? If so, a school like Northwestern may be an excellent choice given its prestigious Medill School of Journalism and Oman Semester study abroad program.
By identifying specific interests ahead of time your child will be better able to narrow down their school list choices.
We use “opportunities” here as a catch-all term for any extracurricular activities, (e.g., clubs, athletics departments, volunteering) community partnerships, disability support programs, and so on offered by certain schools that your child may be interested in or passionate about.
Factor 3: Cost and Financial Aid
We’ve all heard about the rising costs of attending college in the US and the corresponding debt for many families that take years, sometimes decades, to pay off.
According to The College Board, the cost of college during the 2017-2018 academic year had risen by 26% at private nonprofit four-year colleges since 2007-2008, 37% at public four-year colleges, and 32% at public two-year colleges, after adjusting for inflation.
These increases brought up current prices to the following:
Tuition and Fees
Private nonprofit four-year: $34,740
Public four-year: $9,970
Public two-year: $3,570
Room and Board
Private nonprofit four-year: $12,210
Public four-year: $10,800
Private nonprofit four-year: $46,950
Public four-year: $20,770
These numbers can be scary, but they don’t tell the entire story. While public universities do indeed have much lower sticker prices, the most selective private colleges, which tend have the highest endowments (i.e., the wealthiest), also tend to meet the greatest percentage of financial need for families.
In fact, most students will not have to pay the full listed prices of college tuition, room and board. Some of this amount will be covered via grants. The rest of it can be covered via loans, work, and scholarships.
Further reading: The Ultimate Guide to Finding and Winning College Scholarships
Of course, your family may not qualify for need-based aid. If that’s the case, you may be more interested in colleges that offer merit-based aid. Keep in mind, however, that the most selective schools, like every Ivy League university, do not offer merit-based aid because all of their students are excellent academically.
There is much more to cover about financial aid that falls outside the scope this article, but our goal is to introduce the college cost landscape so you can identify colleges that meet your child’s academic goals and your family’s budget.
Factor 4: Location and Size
It’s important for your child to consider where they’d like to spend four years of their late teens and early 20s.
Quality of life can matter just as much to students as their academic work. Therefore, we ask students the following questions when helping them develop their school list:
Do you want to attend school in a big city or rural area?
Would you like to live in a cold weather or warm weather setting?
How near to your family do you want to be?
With regard to size, your child’s college experience can be very different if the student body comprises 8,000 students vs. 30,000 students. While large colleges make efforts to have small class sizes for upper division courses, access to TAs, community building activities, etc., your child may feel like “just a number” if a large school isn’t suited to them.
On the flipside, large colleges sometimes offer opportunities, such as robust athletic departments, that many smaller schools don’t. Moreover, your child will have access to a larger pool of students from which to make friends.
There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to location and class size, but we encourage your family to have honest conversations about your child’s location and size preferences.
Factor 5: Prestige
Over the past several years, we've noticed a trend where teachers, counselors, and college admissions consultants emphasize the importance of attending colleges that are "the right fit" rather than "the best." Unfortunately, this seems to be a way of curbing families' disappointment if their child doesn't get into their top choices.
We question why "the right fit" and "the best" are presented as mutually exclusive. We believe your child can aim to get into the best schools that are also the right fit.
There are advantages to attending America’s top colleges: higher earnings potential, possibly stronger alumni networks, powerful brand names on your child's resume, the opportunity to build a family legacy, etc.
While prestige isn’t everything, there’s a reason why certain schools receive disproportionately larger numbers of applications relative to others. It’s not just about your child’s education, but also how others will perceive their degree and the sense of achievements that comes with getting in—and graduating from—an elite school.
Appendix: College Search Tools
College Match: A classic guide containing practical advice
Fiske Guide to Colleges: The preeminent college search guide
College Countdown: Online version of the Fiske Guide
College Raptor: Identifies colleges and provides percentage odds of getting admitted
CollegeXpress: Identifies colleges and scholarships based on interests
Unigo: Student reviews of various colleges