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Why Is It Important to Build a Balanced College List?

Students should build a balanced college list consisting of several safety, match, and reach schools. Learn why and how you should do this from an expert!

Lindsey CongerLindsey Conger
College Counselor and Tutor
Moon Prep
There has been a noticeable increase in the number of college applications over the past several years. For example, the Common App—one of the largest college application platforms that partners with more than 900 schools—saw an average 14.4% increase in applications from 2019–2020 to 2021–2022. In addition, the University of California system received 210,840 first-year applications this year—a 3.5% increase over the previous year. There has also been increased competition among prestigious universities. For the Class of 2026, Columbia University and Harvard University accepted less than 4% of their applicants. In addition, the number of UCLA applicants who graduated in the top 9% of their high school class increased by 32%.

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As a result of this fierce competition, many students are applying to over 10 colleges to help beat the odds. Rather than focusing solely on applying to the ideal elite schools, it is critical to develop a balanced school list. A well-balanced list of reach, target, and safety schools provides students with more options, increases their chances of admission, and creates a backup plan for colleges to which they are most likely to be admitted while also taking chances on a few dream schools.

  • Reach schools: Your academic credentials will fall below the school's average range. The acceptance rate is typically lower than 25%; an acceptance rate of below 10% means it’s a reach for everyone.
  • Target schools: Your academic credentials will fall well within (or even exceed) the college’s average range, and the acceptance rate is 25% or above.
  • Safety schools: Your academic credentials will fall comfortably above the school's range for the average admitted student, and the acceptance rate is at least 40%.

The 5P strategy can help you build a balanced list that focuses on five factors: place, price, program, people, and philosophy. Do I want to live in this location? Can I afford the cost? Does the school provide programs that are relevant to my career goals? Do the people and the school share my values? What are the average test scores and GPA of admitted students? These are all questions you need to ask during your college search.

To begin, create an Excel or Google Doc spreadsheet and research these questions. Once you’ve gathered and input the answers, categorize the schools into reach schools, target schools, and safety schools. You should aim for two to three schools for each category to have a balanced list.

Looking to save time and energy in your college application process? Add some of these Colleges and Universities That Don't Require Supplemental Essays to your list!

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