Problem #1: Information Flood
Most college search websites you that there are THOUSANDS of colleges out there. This is true, just not helpful. You start to scroll through page 1 of search results (showing 50 of 329!) and quickly realize that one college you've never heard of sounds pretty much like some other college you've never heard of. Maybe it's just safer to stick to the schools you've heard of? But you don't want to miss out on those "hidden gems" rumored to be out there. What if you're missing out on the perfect school? Panic!
So, yeah, with input from my mom (thanks, Mom!), I made this Google map to kind of help out with that anxiety. This map does not have thousands of colleges. It has about 140. It includes schools that kids from places like Palos Verdes, Palo Alto, San Marino, Arcadia, and Westlake Village actually apply to and attend. OK, and it might have a few that aren't super popular but still merit a second look. Otherwise, they wouldn't be hidden gems, right?
The idea here is that if you start with a universe of 140 schools instead of 4,000 schools, you'll feel much calmer about putting together your list. If you just can't wait to check out the schools, click this link to the Essaywise College Map, or click the map image above.
Problem #2: Optimism Extreme
Now let's talk about that putting together your list process for a minute. You need to be ruthlessly honest with yourself. As I mentioned in my Don't Apply to Stanford post, being a great person doesn't always make you a great applicant. Colleges have idiosyncratic views of "greatness" (aka hooks, like being a legacy) so it's not a knock on you if an ultra-selective college decides you don't measure up. Who cares? That doesn't determine or diminish your character.
Look, you're in control of this process. You decide where to apply. The challenge for many parents and students is coming up with a balanced list of schools. A balanced list is a list with a mix of high-probability (safety), medium-probability (target), low-probability (reach) schools, and for some students, depressingly-low-probability (dream) schools.
Oh, sure. Everyone can do the dream and reach schools. Stanford! Harvard! Yale! Princeton! Caltech! UChicago! Northwestern! And so on. That's no problem. But in my experience, applicants consistently struggle to identify good target and safety schools. They are too focused on the reach! The dream! Safety? Target? No, thank you. Away with you, dream-slayer. Be gone.
I know you're a special snowflake the sheer awesomeness of which has never before blessed this earth. And yet, on the off chance you land far afield, unnoticed by a dream or reach school, then what? Then you're left with your safety schools and your target schools. The other day, my mom shared one of her tips for making sure everyone is paying enough attention to the bottom of the list, the target and the safety schools. Look at just your safety schools. Ask yourself if you would be happy if those were the only schools you got into. Repeat for target schools. If your answer is "No," then you got that optimism overload problem thing in spades, in oodles, or in whichever measure of bounty you prefer.
How to Build a Balanced List
Oh, snap. This is where the blog post gets boring. I mean, I know you don't like how-to guides, and I don't blame you, but it must be done. Swiftly. Avast!
- Explore the Essaywise College Map. Colleges are color coded into four groups: (1) colleges for B/B+ students, (2) colleges for A- students, (3) colleges for A students, and (4) ultra-selective colleges. Zoom in, move across the map, and click on a location to get links to more info.
- Make a "big list" of about 30 schools. You're not stuck with this, so include whatever catches your eye. Try to include 3 schools you've never heard of or know very little about. Hidden gems.
- Label each school as dream, reach, target or likely. If you're like many of my students - top 10% "average smart kid" with no hook - then here's a hint. Any school with a purple star on the college map is a dream school. Period. End of discussion. Beyond that, you're going to have to look at where your ACT / SAT stacks up against the percentiles for admitted students. Above 75th percentile = safety; 25th-75th percentile=target; below 25th percentile=reach. What about GPA? You tell me - what about it? GPA alone is not that useful in figuring out your chances. Each school seems to have its own formula, and most schools are measuring your GPA against your classmates. Not just GPA, but also how challenging your course load is. Yes, a 4.6 weighted GPA sounds great, but if 20% of your school has above a 4.5, and if you've taken easier AP classes, then that 4.6 isn't going to count for as much as you hope. Because ACT / SAT is standardized, it's an easier starting point for categorizing schools.
- Balance the list. If you're an average smart kid, guess what? 1-2-4-3. That's just how I count. 1 dream, 2 reach, 4 target, 3 safety. Think of it this way. You expect to get rejected from your dream and reach schools. You expect to get accepted at 1-3 target schools. You expect to get accepted at 3 safety schools. At the end of it all, you should have about 4-6 choices. Real respectable.
That's as fast as I could do it. If there's one thing I would add -- and there is -- it's that none of this is difficult. We're not trying for the third time to finish reading Lord Jim (I will try a fourth time this summer, will keep you posted, you can't wait for an update). The concept is easy. Research schools. Make a list of ones you like. Label each one as dream, reach, target, or safety. Make a balanced list of 1 dream, 2 reach, 4 target, and 3 safety. The enemies are wishful thinking (If I got in to my dream school, it would be amazing.) and aggressive self-esteem (I DESERVE to go to these schools, and anyone who tells me otherwise is a scoundrel.).
As a human, you're more than your ACT or SAT score, but as an applicant, your ACT or SAT score is an inseparable part of your identity. Accept that, and be ruthlessly honest with yourself. It's not easy. But it's easier than deluding yourself now and racking up the rejections in the spring.
On that somber note, I'm reluctant to end with my usual cheery farewell of "Good luck!" No matter. Good luck!
Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.