Where to apply: Advice for `Ivy Ivy’ and `Larry Local’

With over 4,000 colleges in the United States alone, deciding where to apply can be a daunting task. Here are two fictitious scenarios.

Ivy Ivy: We all know Ivy. She was groomed in the womb. She and her parents have been diligent about tracking her every academic and extracurricular achievement since preschool. She feels she is open-minded since she’s willing to consider Harvard, Yale or Princeton. She just “can’t see herself” going anywhere else.

Unfortunately, students like Ivy who have narrowed their list to include only “dream schools” have blinders on. Statistics from college admissions offices state that roughly 80-85 percent of applicants at almost all colleges, even the nation’s most prestigious ones, are totally equipped to be admitted.

That means that over 80 percent of applicants meet or exceed the average SAT scores and the GPAs posted by the previously admitted class. For this reason alone, the subjective criteria of extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, athletics, jobs and internships are often critical factors.

What should Ivy do? She needs to fill out her list with “target” and “sure-thing” colleges. She and her parents need to get beyond their prestige panic and identify colleges that are the right fit. Common wisdom is to have six to eight colleges on the final list, including:

  • 2 sure-thing schools.
  • 2-3 target schools — where you’re solidly in their range.
  • 2-3 reach schools — schools that you’d love to attend, or any college that accepts 20 percent or less of its applicants.

Larry Local: Larry had never given the college selection process much thought, up until now, in the fall of his senior year. He was always assuming he’d go to a college close to home and “it will all work out.”His grades have been strong. His parents are beginning to get nervous because they haven’t visited any colleges, don’t know what the requirements are and aren’t sure if he has taken the right tests.

In the spring of his junior year he took a class in marine biology, worked closely with his teacher and really enjoyed the subject. He contacted the local science museum and is working there after school and loving it. None of his state university campuses offer marine biology as a major.

What should Larry do? Larry is lucky. Having an idea of what you’d like to study narrows the search. Being “undecided” is completely fine. It just means that your search should focus on colleges with an array of liberal arts opportunities. Be sure to understand that liberal arts opportunities do not necessarily equate with “big” universities. Small and medium-size private colleges and public universities have impressive offerings.

Larry and his parents should sit down with a college guidebook and discuss their wishes and expectations. They should research colleges with strong marine biology departments. If any of the colleges are public, they should investigate the possibility of receiving in-state tuition, since their state doesn’t offer that specific major.


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: lee@collegeadmissionsstrategies.com; www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com