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Brook Wolcott
Noodle Expert Member

September 04, 2019

When applying to college, it's alright to shoot for the stars, as long as you apply to a few colleges where you're pretty much guaranteed to be accepted. Make sure you know which schools are on target with your scores, grades, and your overall academic profile.

This piece was co-authored by Kyle Graham.

Reach. Target. Likely. Conventional college counseling wisdom suggests that, when it comes to assembling a list of colleges to which you will apply, diversifying across these time-honored categories is the secret to success. It's alright to shoot for the stars where being admitted might be an uphill battle (reaches), as long as you apply to a few colleges where you are right on par with the admitted student profile (targets) and a few more where your scores, grades, and academic profile far exceed that of the typical admitted student (likely schools).

While this is well-intentioned college counseling advice, the complexities of the admission process demand a more nuanced understanding of building a college list. Students need to think about an economic principle called opportunity cost and consider constructing something we refer to as an application strategy flowchart.

What does economics have to do with applying to college? Quite a bit, actually, when you understand the idea of opportunity cost. Simply defined, opportunity cost is the value of the alternative you pass up in order to pursue whatever choice you decide upon. The opportunity cost of going to see a movie on a Sunday afternoon is that you could spend those two hours at home reading a book, going on a trail run with your dog, or working on your college applications. The cost of the movie ticket might be $12, but the opportunity cost of seeing the movie is far greater than the monetary cost of the ticket.

Timing is Everything: Many colleges have wildly varying acceptance rates between Early Decision, Regular Decision and Early Action. Most students spend hours and hours thinking about where they are going to apply to college, but often don't realize that when they apply to those colleges (under which application plan) is worth every bit as much thought.

Consider the opportunity cost of applying to Yale under their Restrictive Early Action (REA) policy, for example. Yale's policy prohibits students who apply REA to apply to any other college Early Decision (round I) or to any private college via Early Action. What this means is that, if a student applies to Yale REA, the opportunity cost of that decision is the value of the other alternatives they could have chosen instead. Perhaps they could have applied to Penn Early Decision, for example, or Fordham University via Early Action. Because many colleges use Early Decision as an enrollment management tool, there are often situations where a college might be a target during ED but a reach during RD. As such, passing on the opportunity to apply Early Decision to Penn in order to apply REA to Yale just might bump Penn from a target school on your list to a reach school.

Our suggestion? Create an application flowchart, of sorts, allowing the various scenarios to be mapped out as a visual representation of the opportunity costs involved in deciding when to apply, not just where.

Example of a categorized college list:

Reach: Yale, Dartmouth, Bowdoin

Target: Hamilton, Colgate, Union

Likely: Gettysburg, Fordham

Scenario 1

Scenario 2

Scenario 3

Restrictive Early Action


Yale's REA policy prohibits you from applying REA if you are applying ED I elsewhere, as we are here.

Early Action

EA is not an option because of Yale's REA policy.


Early Decision I

ED I is not an option because of Yale's REA policy.


Early Decision II



Regular Decision

Penn, Hamilton, Gettysburg, Union, Colgate, Fordham

Yale, Bowdoin, Colgate, Union, Gettysburg

Yale, Penn, Bowdoin, Hamilton, Colgate, Union, Gettysburg, Fordham

Think about this as a series of drop-down menus, with one drop-down for each of the five decision plans (REA, Early Action, ED I, ED II, Regular). Since not every college offers each of the five plans, and because REA, ED I, and ED II come with certain restrictions, each drop-down will have only certain colleges. So, if you were to click on the REA drop-down box, in this case only Yale would show up. And if you selected Yale in the REA drop-down, then all options in the Early Action and ED I drop-downs would go away, due to Yale's REA policy, but Bowdoin, Colgate, Gettysburg, Hamilton, and Union would still show up in the ED II drop-down.

But let's pretend that your grades, scores, and profile are in a range where the best shot you have at a particular college is during Early Decision. The college would then appear as an option in your drop-down menu of ED I schools and, if they offer it, it would also appear as an option in the ED II drop-down. But in Regular Decision, perhaps you wouldn't be as competitive, and it wouldn't really appear as an option or, at the very least, perhaps it would need to be recategorized from target in ED to reach in Regular Decision. In this scenario, the student considering applying REA to Yale would have to consider what their realistic chances are at Yale and whether or not a shot at Yale via REA is worth possibly foregoing their opportunity at the other college in this example.

Reach, target, likely? That's just the beginning.

# About the authors

Brook Wolcott is the Founder and Managing Director of Decoding Admissions, LLC, an independent college counseling firm based in Santa Monica, California. Brook graduated from Hamilton College.

Kyle Graham is the Co-Director of College Counseling at Marymount High School in Los Angeles. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of Admission at New York University and Assistant Dean of Admission at Hamilton College. He earned his undergraduate degree at Hamilton College and holds a masters in higher education administration from New York University.

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