#College Essays and Applications

We see the headlines every year: Student gets into _____ of the eight Ivy League schools to which they applied.

The accolades and admiration come pouring in. The student is heralded for such a prestigious achievement. And we would absolutely offer our congratulations.

But, we would also pose this question: Why did you apply to all eight Ivy League schools in the first place?

For all the prestige surrounding it, the Ivy League is simply an athletic conference of eight historic colleges that all have very low acceptance rates—and not even the eight lowest acceptance rates in the country! Duke, MIT, Northwestern, Swarthmore, Vanderbilt, and Williams all have lower acceptance rates than at least one Ivy League school. 

Much more significantly, they are wildly different schools. Would the same student really want to go to a small college in rural New Hampshire just as much as a university in Philadelphia? Would the same student be attracted to Columbia’s Core just as much as Brown’s Open Curriculum? 

It’s fun to dream about attending elite (one can say “highly restrictive”) institutions, but when a student is building their college list, they should not just include schools based on rankings and labels. They should put thoughtful consideration into every school on their list, and that especially means selecting reach schools that are truly a good fit for what they are looking for in their college experience. 

What does “reach” mean, exactly?

There are two ways to determine when a college is a reach. 

  1. When a student’s GPA, class rank, and/or standardized test scores are below the median 25th percentile of accepted students at that college 
  2. When the acceptance rate is 15% or lower—even if a student’s GPA, class rank, and/or standardized test scores are above the 75th percentile of accepted students at that college 
In the second scenario, why is that a “reach” and not a “target”? 

When we are talking about the most competitive colleges, grades, rigor, and standardized test scores are both the most important and the least important factors in admissions decisions. How is that possible?

Grades, rigor, and test scores are the most important factors at virtually every college. But exceptional grades that put a student near the tippy-top of their class, rigor that highlights a student’s willingness to challenge themselves as much as possible within a high school’s course offerings, and superior standardized test scores are a given at the most competitive colleges. 

In other words, grades, rigor, and test scores will ensure that a student is in the running, but they will not distinguish one student from the next. 

That is why the qualitative factors in a student’s controlextracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and college applications and essays—are so crucial when it comes to reach schools. If students have equivalent grades, rigor, and test scores, then it is the activities, recommendation letters, and application essays within their control that set them apart. 

Find a balance

Some students shy away from reach schools. They most often fear rejection and do not want to put themselves out there. 

Other students are determined to be accepted to the most “elite” institutions possible and overload their college lists with reach schools. They may even apply to more than a dozen schools—setting themselves up to write a mountain of college application essays and to face a deluge of disappointment in defer, waitlist, and rejection decisions. They will justify all of this work on applications by saying that they know the odds are low, so they want to cast a wide net in the hopes of receiving just one or two acceptance letters. 

There is a healthy middle ground. Students should not fear rejection. What we worry about more is students feeling regret—wondering, once they receive lots of acceptances from their target and likely schools, why they did not shoot higher.

Students should also not overload their lists with lots of reach schools solely for the sake of “increasing odds.” We would argue that if a student takes on too much work, then the quality of each application essay may suffer, and that can hurt their chances across the board. And the mental and emotional impact of hearing “no” so many times, if and when that becomes a reality, is not something that students and parents consider enough. Having an “unbalanced” college list with more reaches is great, but make sure there are enough likelies and targets to ensure that the student has options and feels good at the end of this journey. 

As always, the most important part of building your student’s college list is making sure they would be truly happy at any of the schools they choose. Don’t chase labels and prestige. Chase places that students can really envision as their future school and home.