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Reach, Target, Safety, WTF: The Right Mix of Colleges to Apply to

Reach, Target, Safety, WTF: The Right Mix of Colleges to Apply to
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Paul Kanarek November 25, 2015

It’s a good bet that everyone who’s applied to college in the past few decades is familiar with reach schools, target schools, and safety schools. But this college counselor will teach you how to understand those categories — plus a new one — and suggest how to manage your application workflow.

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Reach, target, safety.

It’s the Great Law of College List-Building — seemingly as immutable as gravity, as predictable as the appearance of at least one hideously ruffled blue tuxedo shirt at the senior prom.

But the world has changed, and so too should the way you evaluate your college list. Gone are the days of the one-size-fits-all advice encouraging students to apply to at least three schools, one in each of these categories. There’s a smarter and more effective way to achieve admissions success.

Safety Schools

Let’s begin with the group that families tend to spend the least time considering. This is the school on your list that is usually an afterthought — and a category that is often misunderstood.

Your safety school is much more than simply a place that you know will admit you. Rather, it needs to be close to home and inexpensive for you to attend. That way, if something goes horribly awry for you (personally, financially, or otherwise), you have an affordable and convenient option.

Bearing all this in mind, unless you’ve totally misjudged the school in question or your ability to get in, it’s not a good idea to apply to more than one safety school.

Target Schools

This is where you need to spend the bulk of your time and efforts.

The “target” category contains the school you are most likely to attend. A target school is one at which your grades (plus the courses you took) and test scores sit firmly in the posted 25th to 75th percentile range (among students accepted the previous year).

Generally, you’ll want to apply to four of these.

If you’ve done your homework and assessed the strength of your application honestly, you’ll probably be accepted to three out of four. If you’ve done a lot of research and have applied to colleges that are a particularly good fit for you, then you may even receive a scholarship offer, assuming such opportunities exist.

Reach Schools

With the rise of the ultra-competitive university, “reach” has a new definition. It’s no longer about applying to name-brand schools whose bumper sticker on the back on your parents’ car will make all your classmates’ families swoon with envious desire. Instead, these are schools at which your transcript or test scores fall either below or at the low end of the 25th to 75th percentile range for accepted students. And any college — or specific department or major within a college — that has an overall acceptance rate of 10 to 25 percent is, by definition, a reach for everyone.

My advice is to apply to two reach schools. If you are an exceptionally good match, you might get into one of them.

WTF (Where’d They Fit?!) Schools

You know these schools. Getting into one of them feels a lot like winning the university lottery. And it’s got almost nothing to do with the fact that you are an amazing and accomplished student who deserves to be accepted.


All of the other applicants from around the globe are just as accomplished as you are. Any university (or, again, college or department therein) that accepts less than 10 percent of its applicants sits squarely in the WTF category. And this coming year, we’ll probably see a couple of these schools dip below 5 percent admit rates. (The leading contenders for this dubious honor are Harvard and Stanford.)

You are wonderful, incredible, marvelous, and inventive. And you are almost definitely not getting into a WTF school. But you are also only 17 or 18 once in your life, so why not try? As we love to say at Collegewise, “If you don’t get rejected by at least two colleges, you didn’t try hard enough.”

A word to the wise, though: Don’t apply to more than two WTF schools. You’re better off putting your time and effort into applications with a greater likelihood of success.


Here’s my final piece of advice. Work on applications to colleges and universities in the order they’re laid out above: safety, target, reach, WTF.
Though exceptions can be made to that workflow if you’re applying to a given school using early action or early decision, it’s best to make sure you’ve got your materials submitted to at least one bankable school before you start working on the rest of your list.

Paul Kanarek is the CEO of Collegewise. If you want more information on how to make your college search a success, check out advice from Noodle Experts like Paul about college.

Also, use the personalized, free Noodle college search tool to find the schools that are a good fit for you.


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