#College Essays and Applications

While it is common to hear a student rhapsodize over a reach school, it is unusual to hear much enthusiasm directed at a school that qualifies as a likely school for that same student.

It’s not surprising that families focus on reaches and top choice schools—many students work incredibly hard throughout high school to build an application that will allow them to be competitive at their dream reaches—and that time is well spent!

However, having a college list conversation surrounding likely schools is also extremely important. Finding options that fit your student and offer a high likelihood of admission at schools where students feel they can be truly happy are invaluable assets for reducing the anxiety and pressure of the whole college application process.

Rather than viewing likely schools as worst-case scenarios, we believe with the right mindset and research, the likely schools should be the foundation of a  student’s college list.

Most students apply to 9-10 schools, but no matter the size of the list, having 3 likely schools is a comfortable number that still allows for options so students can evaluate different potential financial offerings. For the sake of peace of mind, we strongly recommend making sure there are three likely schools on your student’s college list.

How likely is likely, exactly?

When we say “likely school,” we mean true insurance policies that your student has an EXTREMELY good chance of getting admitted to—in other words, schools you would bet $100,000 on getting into, not just $1,000.

One rule of thumb is to make sure your student’s GPA and test scores are above the 75th percentile for that school. In-state public schools often make for good options, as some in-state schools even offer guaranteed admission for in-state students with certain grades and test scores.

As we also wrote about in our blog about building a college list, Naviance (assuming it is offered through your student’s high school) allows students to compare themselves to past students from their high school who also applied to the same colleges, seeing if students with comparable grades and test scores were ultimately accepted or rejected. Colleges know that not all high schools are exactly the same, so data from students at your same high school can be more reliable in predicting your admissions chances than data from a nationwide pool.

Your student’s guidance counselors should also be able to provide you with more insights into possible likely schools based on their knowledge of your student and their invaluable experience with matriculation at your student’s particular school.

Can you provide us with an example?

An example: Eleanor has a 4.2 weighted GPA and got a 33 on the ACT.

Drexel University says that, for students admitted for the Fall 2022 semester, the middle 50% of ACT scores ranged from 27-32. Admitted freshmen had an average GPA of 3.81.

Given her grades and test scores, Eleanor can confidently consider Drexel a likely school.

If Eleanor were to submit her application to Villanova University where the average applicant weighted GPA is 4.2-4.58 and mid 50th % range ACT scores are 33 to 35, that would not be a likely, but rather a target school.

How to Create A Likely School List

Remember that the right likely schools for you are not just schools you are likely to be accepted into, but rather schools you can envision making a home at if you are not admitted to your target or reach schools. Once you have done your research and assembled a list of reach and target schools your student is likely to apply to, the next step is to consider many of the same factors for their likely schools—along with some bonuses!

Consider the following 3 factors:

  1. Make sure the likely school matches their dream college environment, size, culture, and academic programs.
  2. Consider financial benefits—and not just in-state tuition. In fact, private institutions that are “likely schools” for your student may offer so much merit scholarship money that the final tuition bill may be cheaper than a public, in-state option.
  3. Also, consider academic and social benefits. If your student is admitted to a likely school, then they may be admitted to a special program or an honors college that includes exclusive seminars, priority housing and course selection, or numerous other perks.

If you would like assistance with generating ideas for likely schools based on your student’s profile as an applicant, consider our college list service.

Have thoughtful conversations about likely schools.

For too many students (and parents!), the phrase “likely school” conjures fears of disappointment and rejection. Many students and parents are so focused on reach and target schools that they choose their likely schools with very little thought about any other aspects of the school other than admissions chances and affordability.

(For example, a Pennsylvania-based student may only want urban colleges, but they will include Penn State on their list because of in-state tuition. But if they want an urban school, they can also get in-state tuition at the University of Pittsburgh or Temple.)

Since there are already so many pressures and stresses when it comes to the college application process, remind your student that any college admissions “YES” is something to be proud of and grateful for—and that their likely school may well be someone else’s reach!

It can also relieve tension to assure your student that you yourself will still be proud of them if they end up attending one of the likely schools on their list.

No one likes talking about potential let-downs, but ignoring the possibility that your student may not get into one of their top-choice schools for fear of discouraging them risks turning a time of joy and anticipation into a time of apprehension and dejection.

The key to avoiding this tricky situation is to choose likely schools that your student can genuinely imagine as not just their school, but also their home for the next four years. They should be passionate about their likely schools and confident that they can pursue a fulfilling academic and personal life at those colleges.

Time and again, the students and families who are the least stressed out about the college application process are those who have thoughtfully considered and openly communicated about likely schools. They know that even if the end of the journey includes some disappointments and sadness, there will still be a happy ending.

Another insight: we have worked with dozens of transfer students over the years. Overwhelmingly, these are not students who only got into their likely schools—they are students who got into one of their top-choice colleges only to realize that it was not the right fit for them after all.