What is a Strategic College List? 

By Susan Antlitz

One of the first and most important steps on the path to college admission is creating a list of colleges where a student is planning to apply. A thoughtful and strategic list can drastically lower a student’s stress level and ensure multiple offers of admission.

When I talk with students about creating their college list, I like to start with the end in mind. I think it is important to clarify the goal of the college list before getting into the specifics of how to build the list.

SO … what IS the goal of the list? 

The goal is to build a well-balanced, well-fitting, and strategic college list that ensures you’ll have multiple acceptances by the end of the admissions cycle.

Let’s look in detail about each of the characteristics of a strong list:

Balanced

First, the list must be balanced. This means a student is applying to a variety of schools with a diversity of acceptance rates and academic averages. Colleges generally fall into three broad categories:

Likely Colleges: The student’s grades and test scores are ABOVE the college’s average scores. This makes the student more likely to be accepted. Some people refer to these as “safety” schools.

Target/Match Colleges: The student’s grades and test scores fall WITHIN the college’s averages. In other words, your academic and extracurricular profile looks similar to the majority of students at that college. Your chances of admission aren’t certain, but you have a good chance of being admitted.

Reach Colleges: The student’s grades and test scores are LOWER or near the bottom of the college’s averages. Now, some schools are considered reach schools for everyone. The most selective colleges in the country admit less than 10% of all applicants. Even if your academic and extracurricular profile is as strong as the college’s average, you still have a statistically very small chance of being admitted—so you MUST consider these reach schools.

When building a list, it is incredibly important to make sure that you have colleges that fall into each category. I recommend students apply to between 8 and 10 schools. So a balanced list might look like the following: 2–3 likely schools, 3–4 target schools, 2–3 reach schools.

Students tend to want to put LOTS of energy into the reach schools. These schools often have glowing reputations and fall near the top of the rankings, and students believe acceptance to a reach school will ensure their future happiness. While I always encourage students to apply to some reach schools, I also try to bring their focus back to their target and likely schools. The majority of a student’s time and energy should be spent on researching those target and likely schools. This will drastically increase your chances of admission at multiple schools AND lower your stress levels.

Fitting

Simply put, colleges on a student’s list should ALL be schools that are a good fit—academically, extracurricularly, socially, financially, and culturally. It is crucial to do your research and find out whether the schools you are looking at have the majors you want to study, offer extracurriculars you hope to be involved in, have strong internship and job placement support, offer scholarships or financial aid, and are places where you feel that you could connect with students and faculty.

Students often spend a lot of time dreaming about certain selective schools, only to visit those schools and realize they don’t offer the majors they want or don’t like the feel and culture of campus. On the flipside, I’ve seen students write off their state schools or other schools that are “easy” to get into because they assume selectivity = better. They often have a change of heart after visiting, meeting the professors and students, and realizing that they have a great chance of receiving merit aid or acceptance into an honors program.

Have an open mind and don’t assume anything about particular colleges. Do your due diligence in researching colleges to make sure that every college on your list is the right fit. This goes for their likely, target, and reach schools. While I realize it is difficult for students not to favor some schools over others, it is important that they would gladly attend any school on their list. If they won’t be happy attending a specific college, they shouldn’t apply there!

Strategic

What makes a list strategic? A strategic list is a well-fitting and well-balanced list that digs a bit deeper into the student’s personality, strengths and weaknesses, and future plans. It asks the student and family to shift their mindset from simply being admitted to schools, to thinking through other variables that will impact the student’s chances of admission, opportunities for scholarships, and future goals.

For example, some families won’t qualify for much financial aid when they apply to schools. Because of this, they are looking for schools that offer merit aid (i.e. scholarships). For these families, it is actually even more important to prioritize the likely and strong target (target schools where they are near the top of the academic averages) colleges because that is where they will receive more merit aid. This isn’t necessarily different than finding schools that are the right fit for you, but it may be a mindset shift for some students who can’t get their focus off applying to the top 50 schools.

Another strategy is related to location. Students that are able to broaden their search geographically often end up with more merit and financial aid. For example, most of the highly selective colleges in the US are on the coasts or in major cities. If a student is open to going to school in the Midwest or South, there are numerous amazing liberal arts colleges that give generous financial aid and scholarships.

A third strategy takes into account a student’s future academic pursuits. If a student hopes to attend law school after college, her college GPA, rank, and relationships with the professors who will be writing her recommendations will all matter greatly for that law school application. It might make more sense for her to attend a slightly less selective school where she graduates near the top of her class than an extremely competitive college where she graduates near the middle or bottom of her class.

A truly strategic college list takes into account academic match and college fit, but it also looks a bit more closely at the specific needs of each student to craft a list that opens doors for admission and success in college and beyond.

Want to learn more about college admissions? Check out this article about college essay fundamentals!


Susan AntlitzSusan Antlitz spent four years as a high school college guidance counselor at a small private school where she helped build the college guidance program from scratch. After a move brought her to Washington, D.C., she started Antlitz Consulting, where she continues to advise students and families walking through the college selection and admissions process.