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How to build a great college school list

In Junior, School List and Senior.

It's hard to build a balanced college list

Few students start thinking about college with the goal of forming a balanced list of schools (whatever that means).

Instead they think about where they want to be. Usually one's idea of "where one wants to be" has two discreet parts.

The first is a specific school—a "dream school"—that you imagine when someone asks you where you want to go to college.

Because we are suggestible creatures, these dream schools are often the same: Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Middlebury, UCLA, MIT, Michigan, Berkeley, etc.

The second part of the "where one wants to be" checklist usually includes a few general characteristics.

For example: "I want to be somewhere small—I want to be at a college where ivy spills down brick facades."

Or else, "I want to be at a big school that differs sharply from my high school, where I know everyone and everyone knows me."

(Of course, the school where you want to be can be very different from the school where you should be. The school you've always dreamed of attending may not be a very good fit—culturally, academically, financially, etc. But that's a conversation for another time.)

It's rare that I talk to a student who has zero idea of what kind of school they want to attend.

Typically, I work with students who have already answered (at least to themselves) this more fundamental question about where they belong.

I usually impose myself only after a student has answered this fundamental question, when we have to get down to the brass tax of constructing a viable college list.

Once a student sets out their own internal criteria for their college list, my job is to help build a list of schools around their criteria that will "guarantee" acceptance.

There are no guarantees in college admissions

This is not easy. There are no guarantees in college admissions.

For a college list to be truly bullet proof, students and parents need to come to grips with the reality of applying to college today. That is—it's really, really hard.

It doesn't help that students tend to be aspirational when they think about their college futures. It's common knowledge that everyone should create a list that has "safeties," "targets," and "reaches." But applicants and their families often take extreme liberty in defining these buckets—often to their disadvantage.

Specifically, they do three things:

  1. Lack of creativity: They show little creativity with their "reach" choices. The same schools—often Ivy League or so-called potted ivies—appear over and over again. And statistically speaking, for most students, these are not really "reaches," but "impossible reaches."
  2. Too much optimism: They are too optimistic when choosing "target" schools. They look at school acceptance rates, GPA and test score medians, and choose schools which are not true targets, but closer to reaches.
  3. Over-confidence in safeties: They are too confident in their safeties, treating them as given acceptances. This results in riskier school lists that have too few true safeties.

These three tendencies lead to extremely top-heavy lists with too few safeties, too many "impossible reach" picks, and a narrow band of ambitious "targets" that may or may not be dependable picks.

Given that acceptance rates across the board have gone down precipitously, this process of "expectation inflation" can have disastrous effects.

Aspirational lists guarantee one thing: numerous rejections.

Rejections, in turn, lead to nail-biting and anxiety-ridden decision periods. It happens every time.

The best way to counteract expectation inflation is to adopt a healthy attitude of proactive pessimism.

Proactive pessimism does NOT mean proactively throwing in the towel and shipping your applications on the last night before they're due.

Proactive pessimism can save your a**

Rather, it means building a college list around the assumption that if something can go wrong, it will. If you're evaluating a target school and see that your test scores and GPA place you in the 58th percentile of accepted applicants, don't think about that as a banked W.

What if everything went wrong? Do you have a rock-bottom school that anchors your list? A school that would never reject you

Essentially, I push my students to seek a higher margin of confidence in each of their three school choice bands.

That means less risky reaches, easier targets, and safer safeties. It also means more acceptances and a lot of avoided anxiety, fights, and sadness.

In the next section, I'm going to elaborate on these three "buckets" and what a decent distribution of schools might look like for different students. Read on!

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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