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Question How do I know if the schools on my list are too hard or too easy? Do you base it on average SAT scores? – John

AnswerCalibrating your list so that you are not over applying (too many overly selective schools on your list) or under applying (too many colleges that won’t challenge you) is one of the most difficult aspects of building an appropriate and interesting college list for yourself. SAT scores (or ACT scores) are one way to do an initial match-up. However, we wouldn’t recommend focusing on average scores. The better and more reliable statistic is the middle-fifty percent score range, for either SAT or ACT. That stat shows that half the entering class at a college scored within that range. In other words, only 25 percent scored higher, and 25 percent lower. If you are in the middle of that 50 percent range, you can assume that, at least by the standardized test score measure, you are on target for that college. If you are well above the range, the school might be a more likely admit for you. If you are below the range, you are less likely to be admitted — the school will be more of a reach — especially if you don’t have a big “hook” going for you. The biggest hooks are alumni legacy status, being a recruited athlete, and being a member of an underrepresented ethnic or international student group.

That said, the most important factor in college admissions is your high school curriculum and your long-term performance in it. The more selective the college, the more you will be expected to have taken a highly demanding set of college prep courses (including honors/Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate/Accelerated or other advanced classes) and to have done consistently well over time. Additionally, you might need to submit SAT Subject Test scores. Colleges and some guide books publish reasonably good statistics on the percentage of enrolled or admitted students (two different groups) who: graduate in the top ten, twenty, or twenty-five percent of their class; have a 3.0 (B) Grade Point Average or higher; and so forth.

Finally, you need to look at the overall admit rate of a college, because even if you are in the ballpark for a highly selective college, for example, that school still might be a reach because it only admits ten to thirty percent of its applicants. Sometimes, you can talk with an admissions representative from a college, in addition to your high school counselor, to get as frank an assessment as possible of your general odds for admission. Unfortunately, uncertainty is on the rise these days, and assessments like this are more art than science.

As you progress through the fall of your senior year, you will have more data to assess your qualifications for the colleges on your list, and to then add or drop colleges to make sure your list is hopeful, but also realistic and, most of all, balanced.

Question I’m currently a junior, and have started looking at colleges. My problem is that, being from a single-parent family, we won’t be able to afford any of the larger, more expensive colleges. My two older sisters will also be in college as the same time as me, so I’ve been looking into close, relatively cheap colleges. I was just wondering what your opinion is- so I go more for my dream college or something more economically feasible? I’m smart (top 1% of my class), I did relatively well on my SAT’s and PSAT’s, I’m half-Indian, and I enjoy volunteering, so I’m hoping that scholarships will help pay for most of my tuition, but colleges are just so expensive nowadays. I’m kind of stuck on what I should do. – Rachel

AnswerDon’t limit your application options! If you are in the top 1% with good test scores, then just the opposite strategy from the one you are considering will help open up the best and most affordable schools for you. Yes, apply to one or two “financial aid safety schools” close to home which you know your family can afford. But, then apply to dream schools which might offer only need-based financial aid. Some of the most expensive colleges have the largest number of students receiving financial assistance and offer the most aid. Additionally, add strong universities to your list which also offer merit-based scholarships in addition to need-based assistance. These include many of the strongest colleges in the country, and they often add more scholarships to the table to attract students from farther away (in order to diversify their class).

If your family will have three students in college simultaneously, then all three of you should file for need-based financial aid in January of your senior year — you all will receive a larger amount of aid based on the additional student entering college.

College financial aid packages vary tremendously, so avoid Early Decision, apply broadly to a diverse range of colleges (size of the college has nothing to do with the amount of aid you might receive either) and types of colleges and you will have a greater range of choice.

Question I have used various college search engines. The range of “match” programs range from Ivy League on some results to state universities for others. While appreciating the inexact science that is the college admission process how is one best able to pare down these varied results to reasonable choices? – Colby

AnswerThere could be many reasons why search engines produce such varied results — whether you put in particular majors, locations, minimum SAT, or average, or special programs, honors colleges at state universities, etc. The admissions and college selection process is very much an art, not a science, and is inexact. So, if you use the search tools as an initial broad matching process, then you need to consider what other factors (size, location, academic programs, level of academic demand or admissions selectivity, etc.) could help you in the search engine, and then in your one-by-one college research process, to further narrow (and possibly expand) your list.

Pick some representative schools from your list and start spending time on the colleges’ Web sites and in the guide books. Look at the “student profile” or “class profile” to get a better sense of who is getting in, where they are from, and what the colleges seem to be looking for. Look at their philosophies, special programs, and representations of themselves to see if they seem to be a good fit environmentally or culturally for you. Next, you’ll need to visit some to confirm, or challenge, your initial assumptions and reactions. Then it’s back to the research, then more visits, and so on.

Question I’m helping my daughter (junior) put together a list of colleges. She’s interested in small, liberal arts school (northeast/mid-atlantic) with film or creative writing with no general education requirements that will mean taking science or math. Freshman seminars are fine. In researching schools I have been stunned as to the number of schools that have general ed requirements. She’ll probably have high 600s in each section of the SATs and her GPA is around 3.5. Is there any list that you know of that compiles schools by whether they have general ed requirements? Many college web sites seem to hide this information. This is a pretty non-negotiable item for her.

So far the schools that don’t have general ed but do have film/creative writing seem to be Vassar, Bard, Hampshire, Bennington, Muhlenberg, Emerson, RISD, Suny Purchase, Sarah Lawrence, Wesleyan (out of her league, though). Any other thoughts on potential schools would be very helpful.  Thanks. – Diane

AnswerYou’re on the right track with that list of schools. However, your daughter might need to compromise somewhat about the general requirements. Most colleges have them, and most of the time they are not too onerous. And, for a student with strong humanities skills/interests, they usually work out fine. Most distribution requirements, in other words, don’t have heavy math/science orientations, and there are typically interesting courses to fill these spots. That said, she might also look out of the Northeast, or for a school without a major film program, etc., to compromise on some of the other criteria.

Some of the colleges you listed are very “artsy” or “alternative” environments, something that often goes along with a less restrictive curriculum, so she should make sure they fit her well socially/culturally. RISD is a design school, and doesn’t sound like it fits her academic interests — it has a rigorous arts-oriented core program. It is hard to find a general listing of “core” “non-core” requirement colleges. One must delve into the colleges to see what they have in terms of overall graduation requirements, even if they don’t have a “core” set of courses.

Question I have SAT’s and Class rank in about the top ten percent. Some of the universities I’m considering which are selective probably will not offer me any scholarships. I’ve been told that if I set my sights on universities with lower admission standards, they will probably offer me quite a high percentage of the costs to go there. How should I proceed? – Martin

AnswerYou should apply to the colleges that fit you well, including those that offer only need-based financial aid (i.e. those in the Ivy League and a small group of others) and those that offer a combination of need-based and merit-based financial aid. You are right that if you are in the top third or so of many colleges’ applicant pool, you will likely be offered some significant merit-based financial scholarships to entice you to attend. Balance your list, don’t worry about sticker price, and see what you can open up that fits you in the spring.

Question I only want to go to syracuse.  Do I need to have other schools on my list?  Is there an average number of schools on a typical list? – Charles

AnswerYes, you need to have a larger and more diverse list. That is true even if you are certain that you want to attend Syracuse, and even if you apply Early Decision. You cannot be sure you will get in, and you may decide you want to choose from among several choices in the spring. Often, your preferences will change through senior year. If you are too hasty in either committing to a school Early Decision and then get in, or limit yourself too much at the outset, you could find yourself having some regrets in the spring.

The way the regular admission calendar works, you can apply to a balanced list of colleges by January of senior year, and then choose from the ones that admitted you between March and May 1, the Common Reply Date. If you are wait-listed, you might pursue those colleges even into the summer.

If you apply ED, and even if you are pretty sure you have strong chances for admission, you should go ahead and find additional schools of interest and ready those applications prior to hearing back from your first choice school. If you get into Syracuse, you can throw all your applications into the fireplace. If you get rejected or deferred to regular admission, you will be prepared.

We typically recommend that students apply to 8 to 10 colleges if they are looking at selective colleges for admission. Sometimes you can shrink that list by gaining admission to an Early Action (non-binding) institution or rolling admission (typically public universities) school during the fall.

Question How many “safety” schools should I have on my list? How do I determine when a school is “safe” for me? – Nicole

AnswerIf you think about your list as a continuum of schools, from more to less selective, ranging in number from 8 to 10 colleges, then you should plan to have two that are in your “safe” or “probable” range. That means you would have about an eighty percent or higher likelihood of being admitted.

You can establish that a school is a probable admit for you by examining these characteristics: your SAT or ACT scores are in the top twenty-five percent for that college; your course choices are well above the expectations for the average admitted student; your grades are consistently higher than their reported averages; your place in your high school class is higher than their typical admitted applicant; their selectivity rate in general is in the 60 percent range or higher, depending on your qualifications; and so on.

You should pay close attention to your safeties, be sincerely interested in and willing to attend them, and make sure they know you are a serious applicant. That way you’ll be less likely to be rejected or wait-listed.

Question If I really want to go to a specific school, and I think I have a good chance of getting in, how many other schools should I put on my list? I don’t want to put so few that I risk not getting in anywhere, but I don’t want to put that many because I’m 90% sure I’ll get in to my top choice. – Kiai

AnswerSome of the answer is about choice. You might surprise yourself and want more choice in the spring, so you should apply to more schools you might want to go to, even if you eventually pick your initial first choice. The second factor is about security — you might not get in, and so will need other target and backup schools. If you are able to find out through ED, EA, or Rolling Admission that you have gotten in prior to January, then you can safely cut the rest of your list or limit it significantly. Or, you could apply to only one or two EA or Rolling backup or target schools in addition to your first choice, and if you get into them, you can limit the rest of your list.

Question what are the key criteria for determining whether or not a school is a “reach” school vs. one that you are likely to get in? – Susan

AnswerWe like to look at a school list in terms of a continuum, rather than as key fixed categories of reach, target, safety. Some reaches are harder than others, some targets tougher or easier, some safeties truly reliable and others more inconsistent. Sometimes adding more categories helps. You can make “3” your middle of the list targets — you fit the profile and have pretty even odds for admission. Then a “2” becomes a fairly realistic reach, a “1” a tough stretch, a “4” a school that’s pretty solid, and a “5” a super safety.