#College Essays and Applications

As students build their college lists, they may have a balance of likely, target, and reach schools. 

Likely schools are ones where students have an extremely high chance of being admitted; you could call them “back-up” or “insurance” options. Reach schools, on the other hand, are ones where students are not likely to be admitted, but they’re taking a chance anyway.

Target schools—a practical balance between what you hope for and what is possible—fall in the middle of this range. Students should not overlook the importance of target schools on their college lists. 

What does “target” mean, exactly?

A school can be considered a target when a student’s GPA, class rank, and/or standardized test scores fall between the 25th and 75th percentiles, matching the average accepted student. Colleges are required to make this information publicly available, and you can find it by doing a Google search for “<college name> Common Data Set,” then scrolling to Section C9 of the document. More admissions information can be found throughout Section C.

In some cases, a test score that is below the school’s average can be outweighed by an above average GPA, and vice versa. However, grades are generally the most important aspect of any application. If you feel that test scores may detract from your grades and weaken your application, then check out our blog post on test-optional policies.

When is a target not really a target? 

Academics are not the only piece to consider when determining whether a school is a target. Acceptance rate can have a huge impact on a student’s chances of admission. If a school’s rate is low, then the student’s academic profile will need to be on the higher end to make them a competitive applicant. If the rate is high, then admission is more likely even if the student’s academic performance is on the lower end. 

However, schools with less than a 15% acceptance rate are exceptionally competitive and should be treated as reaches, no matter the student’s profile. So even if a student’s GPA and test scores match or exceed the school’s average, that school will be considered a reach if that college has a low acceptance rate. 

Unfortunately, acceptance rates are out of students’ control, but you can check out our other blog post to learn more about the five things in your control. This is where factors like essays, activities, and letters of recommendation can help a student stand out from the crowd. Click here to learn more about how we guide students on their college applications and essays.

Can you provide us with an example?

Of course!

Let’s say Eleanor has a 3.9 weighted GPA and got a 1360 on the SAT.

Franklin & Marshall College says that, for students admitted for the Fall 2019 semester, the middle 50% of SAT scores ranged from 1290–1420. Admitted freshmen also had an average GPA of 3.8. The acceptance rate for that year was 30%. 

Given her grades, test scores, and the college’s acceptance rate, Eleanor can consider F&M a target school.

If Eleanor were to submit her application to New York University, where the average applicant’s weighted GPA is a 3.7, the middle 50% of SAT scores range from 1370–1540, and the acceptance rate is 16%, then that would not be considered a target, but rather, a reach school—even though her GPA is above average. 

Have thoughtful conversations about targets

The most important part of building your student’s college list is making sure that they would be truly happy at any of the schools they choose. Their list should include at least two to three likely schools, and while target and reach schools are not essential, we do recommend having at least a few of each. 

A college list with too many reach schools will likely result in more rejections than acceptances even if the student is deserving, so adding more targets can help protect your student’s confidence before they even get their college journey started. 

Another often overlooked advantage of attending a target school is merit scholarships. At a reach school where the student’s academic profile is not in the top tier of students, they probably won’t be eligible for much. But at a less “rejective” school where they are the cream of the crop, they could earn the highest scholarships the school has to offer. You could even use this information as a bargaining chip to negotiate better scholarships at other schools. 

But what if your student’s dream schools are mostly or all reaches? That is okay, but spending some time carefully considering the characteristics drawing them to these schools can help them find similar but less competitive options. Are there any schools that are comparable in size, location, and academics? Do they offer honors programs that give high-achieving students extra perks? Beyond selectivity and prestige, students should take time to think about the factors that are important to them and why they want to apply to these reach schools. 

Remember, there are many great colleges out there that are not in the small group of ultra-selective ones. Applying to likelies and targets might not be as glamorous as applying to some of the most “elite” institutions, but these are practical choices that students and parents will be grateful for later. Target schools are a great middle ground that give your student more options and could ultimately be their perfect fit.