An Open-Minded Approach to College List Building

News flash! Not everybody gets to go to Princeton!

In fact, very few people get to go to Princeton. Likewise the other Ivies, MIT, Cal Tech, Duke, Chicago, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt and a couple dozen other brand name universities. Only about 40,000 of last year’s 1.1 million college applicants, or 3%, are now freshmen at the most elite schools.

What did the other 96% of applicants do? They aimed lower. Actually, what the majority of them did was aim both high and low by building College Lists that hedged their bets.

A well-researched and properly balanced College List is an indispensable tool in a student’s admissions campaign. It is the result of a diligent search for the colleges that best fit a student’s needs, preferences, abilities, and goals.

Reach, Target, and Safety Schools

A College List consists of 8 to12 schools divided into three categories based on the probability of acceptance, which is derived from information in the Common Data Set for each college. We call the three categories Dream, Target, and Safety.

  1. Dream schools, often called Reach schools, are the institutions that the student most aspires to attend but at which they have at most only about a 25% chance of admission. The academic record of the student places them equal to the bottom quarter of last year’s successful applicants.
  2. Target schools are those at which the student’s academic record falls at about the middle level of last year’s freshmen. The student has a good chance of being accepted, so the probability is estimated at 50% to 75%.
  3. Safety schools are those at which the student’s record puts them in the top quarter of freshmen, so they have at least a 75% confidence level of acceptance. These are schools that the student would be happy to attend if their Dream and Target schools reject them or if they decide not to enroll in any of them.

An Unfortunate Trend

In the last decade, many high-achieving students have fixated on the most prestigious institutions —  their Dream schools. They look down at Safety and Target schools as consolation prizes. Anything less than a Dream school is viewed as failure. These students ignore the strategically sound reasons why mid-tier schools are worthy.

Students should select the best-fit schools that appeal to them as individuals rather than those high in the opinions of other people. With diligent research, students realize that many colleges provide an education that is the equivalent of the elite universities, as described below.

Liberal Arts Colleges

In researching colleges, students discover that they don’t need to sacrifice prestige if they forego the elite universities. America’s prestigious liberal arts colleges, such as Middlebury, Amherst, and Williams in the East and Pomona, Claremont-McKenna, and Carleton in the West provide a superb education. And they’re easier to get into than the elite universities.

Liberal arts colleges have smaller student bodies and lower student-to-faculty ratios. They’re often located in beautiful, bucolic settings. Their approach to education is different than the elite universities, but it’s just as effective in providing students with desirable post-graduate employment. And liberal arts colleges are not just for humanities majors. Some of them, such as Swarthmore, Harvey Mudd, and Bowdoin, are surprisingly deep in distinguished STEM programs.

Factors Favoring Mid-Tier Colleges

Below are five factors that should be considered when choosing Target and Safety schools.

  1. Admission Risk
    There’s an obvious risk taken by students who only wish to attend one of the most elite universities — they may not get admitted to any of them. This outcome is not unlikely. By definition, an applicant has only a small chance of admission to a Dream school. This is true even for applicants with impeccable credentials when they apply to institutions with admission rates of 12% or less.Predicting who will be accepted at an ultra-selective school is tough to do. This is why spreading the risk among Target and Safety schools is a good idea — it increases the likelihood of a happy outcome. Balancing risk also encourages students to weigh the attributes of a wider spectrum of schools.
  2. Affordability
    Many students who are admissible by elite universities can’t afford them without substantial financial aid, the availability of which is uncertain. For them, researching different types of colleges is a concession to financial reality.Among the types of schools that they should research is Best Value colleges. These are schools that provide a quality of education that exceeds what’s expected at their price level. There are published lists of Best Value schools that can be useful. For example, CollegeConsensus determines value using the full list price of a college’s tuition. Others, such as Niche, weigh value in relation to a college’s average net price after financial aid is taken into account.
  3. Public Institutions
    Students seeking a first-rate education at an affordable price should look hard at  the Public Ivies. These prestigious institutions are said to provide a collegiate experience similar to the Ivy League, but at the lower cost of a public school.The Public Ivies include the main campuses of the Universities of Michigan, Virginia, Texas, Vermont, and North Carolina, plus UCLA, UC Berkeley, William & Mary, and Miami University of Ohio. The runners-up are the Universities of Wisconsin, Illinois, South Florida, Colorado, and Washington, plus Penn State, Georgia Tech, Pitt, and Binghamton University.Most state university systems have an Honors College that is modeled after the best private liberal arts colleges. Each one is the pride of a state’s university system, so the caliber of education is outstanding.
  4. Location and Specialization

    1. A student may wish to attend a particular college because its location can advance their career. A few examples are:
      1. For students interested in national politics or government, then Catholic,  American, or George Washington University in Washington offer proximity to Federal government internships and summer jobs.
      2. If a student wants to become part of the Silicon Valley technology culture, then schools such as UC-Santa Clara, San Jose State, or the University of Menlo Park would be beneficial.
      3. Students pursuing a career in the financial or securities industries may wish to consider matriculating at Fordham, The New School, Yeshiva, St. John’s, Pace, Seton Hall, Fairleigh Dickinson, or Manhattan College.

    Some students plan to study a specialized field in which specific undergraduate institutions are known to excel. A few examples are listed below:

      1. Kenyon, Oberlin, UC-Irvine, Iowa-Ames, Hamilton, and Colorado College are known for their excellent programs in Creative Writing.
      2. Students planning to become electrical engineers should research Lafayette, Rennselaer, UC-San Diego, Norwich, Purdue, Ohio State, and Virginia Tech.
      3. Students interested in music should investigate the Berklee, San Francisco, and New England Conservatories as well as the Colburn School of Music.
      4. Tulane, Kenyon, Colby, Pitzer, Temple, Colgate, Santa Clara, Union, Holy Cross, and Macalester are renowned for their programs in neuroscience.
      5. Students planning a career in the performing arts should check out the programs at Smith, Julliard, Wesleyan, Chapman, California Institute of the Arts, Swarthmore, Wagner, Bucknell, Rutgers, and U-MD at Salisbury.
      6. Students planning to become civil engineers may wish to consider Illinois-UC, Clemson, Drexel, George Mason, Lehigh, Auburn, UC-Davis, and Howard.
      7. St. John’s College, Clarkson, Simmons, Pacific, Emory, and Boston Universities are renowned for their concentrations in literature.
  5. Acceptance at a Top Graduate School
    A student has a better shot at a top grad school if they excel at a small mid-tier school in the hinterlands than if they’re a mediocre student at an elite university. Graduate schools seek diversity in their student body just like undergraduate colleges. Being a “Big fish in a small pond” is a good thing in terms of admission to top grad schools.Students at mid-tier colleges also have an advantage in Letters of Recommendation. If a student is applying from a small school that’s underrepresented in the applicant pool, a strong letter from a professor can tip the balance in grad school admissions. These professors know their undergraduates well because teaching them is their only job. Elite university professors focus mainly on research and to a lesser extent on teaching undergraduates.An excellent academic record is more important to grad schools than the brand name of the college that the student attended. A fair question is, “Which is better for grad school admissions: being a mediocre student at an elite school or a top student at a mid-tier school?” We find that the latter is a more advantageous scenario.