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The College List – An Introduction

CollegeAdvisor’s College Finder Series is designed to help you navigate every part of choosing the right college for you, including:  

This “College List” article is the Part II of the College Finder Series. In the first Part of our College Finder Series, we covered how to search for college options . We also discussed the things you need to look for when picking college options. In Part Three, we’ll show you how to pick from all the schools that accepted you so you can find your college match.

This segment of our College Finder Series focus on college lists. Specifically, how do you design a well-balanced college list with reach, target, and safety schools? This part of the College Finder Series will also provide you with a sample college list to use as a guide for building your own school list.

Considering your college options

Have you just started to think about college options? With nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, we know that tackling college lists can be overwhelming, to say the least. That’s where our College Finder Series comes in.

There are lots you can do to narrow your school list down. Part I of our College Finder Series can help guide you through this part of making college lists. 

college list
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To identify a set of college options where you’d thrive, start by thinking about your needs.  For example, is your ideal college match a large campus where hundreds of opportunities flood your inbox each day? Or does the idea of this overwhelm you? Are you a water person who needs college options near the ocean? Or do you want a college list of schools within a few hours of home?

Some of the factors discussed in Part I of the College Finder Series that we recommend considering before you begin to craft your college list:

1. Location and college setting

Some schools are in the heart of a bustling city. Others are in the middle of rural New York. Is it important to you to have target schools with nightlife, a college town vibe, and lots of restaurants within walking distance? 

All of these are factors you should weigh when you pick schools for your college list. If you can narrow your college options down by state and setting, you’ll find your school list much easier to pin down.

2. Academic offerings

Do you have a sense of what you want to do when you graduate? Perhaps you should create a college list of schools that specialize in this track. Or maybe you have no clue what you want to do—which is okay! In this case, you may prefer a college list that leaves you free to specialize later on.

Do your research on the schools you are considering. This lets you ensure that their academic offerings will neither overwhelm you nor restrict you. Your school list should complement your goals for your education.

3. College size and class size

Not all students will thrive in every setting. If you’ve grown up in a small town your whole life, perhaps you would feel strained by a huge campus. Or maybe you grew up in a city, and you want the intimacy of a smaller campus. Think about the environment you envision yourself doing the best in, and make sure your college options fit that vision. 

college list
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This is equally true of class size. Some universities average 10 students per class, others 500 students per class. Is it important to you to get to know all of the other students in your classes? Do you want to go to school in a place where your professors know your name? This might be something to consider when selecting your college match.

Note, also, that school size doesn’t always tell you about class size. Some big schools prioritize maintaining small class sizes, so be sure to do your research.

4. Campus culture

When it comes to campus culture, no two schools are exactly alike. Is Greek life a priority to you? Do you want to attend football games? Do you want a school where parties abound? Or maybe one with a substance-free policy? Do you want a school that feels anonymous, or a campus where everyone knows everyone?

Campus culture can be a key factor in finding a college match.  

While researching the culture online is a good first step, arrange a college visit to really find out about campus culture. College visits help you see whether you feel a connection to the campus and students. You’ll also pick up on nuances you cannot find online. 

5. Campus amenities and facilities

Finally, make sure that the schools on your college list offer amenities you care about. If there are certain clubs or facilities you can’t live without (campus pool, on-campus housing etc.), check that each school on your college list has them. 

By filtering schools with the different factors above, you’ll quickly find the school list of 4,000 college options dwindles. At this point, it should be much more straightforward to build your school list. 

For more advice on narrowing down your colleges list, check out the first part of the College Finder Series. In that part of the College Finder Series, we discuss how to weigh your college options and find the schools that are a prospective college match for you.

You can also check out other resources that help with college lists, including the U.S. News Best Colleges list and Forbes’ Top Colleges. The National Center for Education Statistics also provides a free college finder that shows you the college options that fit your criteria. 

What is a college list?

Now that your list of college options is more manageable, how do you go about building your personal college list? How do you find your college match? And for that matter, what even is a college list?

A college list is a list of schools that you intend to apply to. It is a list unique to you, and a well-designed school list should be specific to your criteria, scores, grades, and finances. It should reflect your personal interests and priorities. Therefore, it’s not something you can copy from someone or somewhere else. And while you can recruit a second opinion in building your college list, it’s not something that someone else can make for you.

college list; college finder
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Completing college lists is a critical milestone as you apply to college. This is why we published the College Finder series. College lists determine your SAT requirements and other college admissions requirements, as well as your ultimate college match. 

Reach, target, and safety schools

As you go about picking your college list and weighing your college options, you will hear the words reach, target, and safety schools repeated. But what are reach colleges, safety schools, and target universities? 

We will deep dive into reach, target, and safety schools later in this College Finder Series. But to give you a sense: reach, target, and safety schools refer to how likely a student is to be admitted. Some schools will be reach colleges for every student, like Harvard or Stanford. However, a school that’s a reach for one student may be a target school for another. Your college list should include reach, target, and safety schools. That way, you have the best chance of getting into somewhere that’s a perfect college match for you. 

In truth, your college list is also your college admissions to-do list. It is the list of applications to complete and deadlines to meet. As such, your school list can serve as your guide through admissions season. 

Finally, note that your college list does not have to be a final document. Your initial college list should be thorough and well-researched. But plans change. Perhaps your scores are higher or lower than you expected. Or maybe personal matters require you to narrow your schools list. In short, know that adjustments can be made to your college list as you go along.

When should you start building a college list?

Many students wonder about the right time to start building college lists. We suggest the following as a guide for your “school list” timeline:

college list timeline
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9th Grade

At this point, you don’t have to get too serious about weighing college lists or finding your college match. Start doing research, especially if you have a dream school in mind. If you’re making a college list of schools near home, you can also begin attending local college tours or virtual visits to campuses. 

Use CollegeAdvisor articles and webinars to explore your college options. Check out this webinar on starting your college list. You can also start by reading Part I of the College Finder Series. 

10th Grade

As you progress through your second year of high school, you and your family should get familiar with the financial aid process. CollegeAdvisor has great resources for this part of building your college lists. See this webinar on weighing college tuition as you choose your school list. 

Also, take the time to visit at least three college campuses in your second year. Pacing your college visits means less time spent on college lists in the second half of high school.

11th Grade

Junior year is when you should start spending more time and energy on college admissions. This is when the bulk of your research on college options happens. Ensure you have a strong understanding of how much your family can afford to spend on college expenses and tuition. Also, begin your own list of criteria and priorities for college. 

In your junior year, you should also start looking into merit scholarship opportunities. This may determine some of the colleges that go on your school list. Finally, put aside time over school breaks to visit college campuses. 

12th Grade

In your final year of high school, finish researching your college lists. You should now have a reasonably final list of 12-15 colleges. 

At this point, your colleges list should be well-balanced, with a variety of reach colleges, target colleges, and safety colleges. You should now be familiar with all of the steps discussed in the College Finder series.

What should a college list include?

When it comes to college lists, there’s no perfect formula. Every student’s situation is unique. However, at CollegeAdvisor, we recommend a college list of 12-15 schools.

The breakdown of reach, target, and safety schools should roughly be: 

  • 2-4 safety schools
  • 4-6 target schools
  • 3-4 reach colleges

If the terms “safety school,” “reach school,” and “target schools” are confusing to you, don’t worry! We go into more details on reach, target, and safety schools later in this College Finder article.

If you’re just starting to think about college lists, check out these resources: U.S. News’ How to Make a College List and CollegeBoard’s 5 Steps to Creating a College List. You can also start by reading Part I of the College Finder Series, which covers the factors to consider as you narrow down your college lists.

What is a safety school?

A safety school—also known as safety colleges or “likelies”—is a school where you have more than a 75% chance of acceptance. At a safety school, your academic profile is stronger than the typical admitted student and your scores are higher than the school’s SAT requirements or GPA requirements.

safety schools
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Let’s say we have a student with a 3.5 GPA and a 1200 SAT score. What schools are considered safety schools for this student? One safety school might be Bryant University, a private university with an acceptance rate of 71% and an SAT range of 1050-1220. Another safety school could be Rider University, also with an acceptance rate of 71% and an SAT range of 1020-1210. At both of these schools, our student is on the higher end of the SAT range, making these schools safe bets—or safety schools.

Aim to apply to three or four safety schools, and a very minimum of two, in order to have a well-balanced college list. Note that even at a safety school, acceptance is not guaranteed. In fact, no stage of college admissions is certain. But, a safety school should give you a strong chance of admittance. 

Use CollegeAdvisor’s free college finder tool to identify more safety schools for you. 

What is a target school?

Target colleges and target universities—sometimes referred to as match colleges—are the next tier of schools that should appear on your colleges list. On your target colleges list are schools where you have a reasonably good chance of acceptance. 

In your college list, target schools are the schools where college admissions requirements align closely with your own academic performance. To be more specific, target colleges are usually schools where you will have have a 25-75% chance of acceptance.

target schools
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Let’s look again at our student with a 3.5 GPA and a 1200 SAT. What schools would make good target colleges or target universities for this student? One school that might be on their target colleges list is Cornell College, a private college in Iowa with an acceptance rate of 62% and an SAT range between 1199 and 1340. 

Another of the potential target universities is Chapman University, with an SAT range of 1190 to 1380. At either of these target schools, our student falls in the middle range for the SAT and other academic requirements.

We suggest applying to between four to six target colleges or target universities. 

You might wonder – “why do target schools make up the majority of my college list?” Your target colleges list is the happy medium of your college options—the most likely to be your college match. While a reach school gives you low acceptance odds, a safety school might mean compromising some of your criteria. Your target colleges list, on the other hand, is most likely to strike the balance between decent acceptance odds and a fit with your college preferences. 

Spend a lot of time ensuring your target schools feel like a good fit for you. Research your target colleges and target universities, and schedule campus visits to get a sense of campus life. While every school on your list should feel like a potential college match, this is most important for your target colleges and target universities. 

CollegeAdvisor provides a detailed college finder you can use to select likely target schools for you.  

What is a reach school?

Lastly, after target universities and safety schools, we arrive at the reach school. Reach schools are the hardest college options to get into on your college list. They might be a dream school or a school of higher prestige, rigor, or demand. Generally, your odds of acceptance are lower than 25% at a reach school. 

We also say that any school with an acceptance rate of less than 15% is a reach school, regardless of your academic profile. For this reason, any Ivy League school—such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and other Ivies—will be a reach school for even the most accomplished student. There are absolutely no guarantees when it comes to schools at this level of selectivity. 

reach colleges
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Even schools that aren’t Ivy League can be reach schools. For example, MIT, Stanford, and Julliard are reach schools, as well as other highly selective institutions. 

While some students may be tempted to “shoot their shot” at all of the Ivies or highly selective schools, we suggest capping this part of your college list at three to four schools. Applying to schools is time-consuming and sometimes expensive. Therefore, prioritize your target colleges and target universities and safety schools. They’re more likely to be your perfect college match in the end.

Finally, we encourage students to take the time, even with reach schools, to ensure that every college on your list is truly a college match. You may be tempted to apply to a school purely because of prestige.  But it’s most important to make sure you’d be happy attending any of your college options. For example, if you grew up in the California sunshine and can’t stand the cold, is Harvard really a potential college match?

How to determine safety, match, and reach schools for your college list

Now, you know the difference between safety colleges, match colleges, and reach colleges. Next, you’re probably wondering how to figure out which school on your college list falls into which category. It is time to discuss narrowing down your list of college options, determining your college match schools, and building a school list that reflects your priorities while maximizing your acceptance odds.

Classifying the colleges on your school list into safety schools, target universities, and reach colleges will depend on various factors. This includes how your academic credentials align with the school’s averages and how selective the school is.

The three factors you should keep in mind when determining reach, target, and safety schools are:

  • Average test scores (SAT/ACT) of admitted students
  • Average GPA of admitted students
  • Acceptance rate

Rather than providing students with SAT requirements or GPA requirements, many schools will report the middle 50% range of test scores and GPAs of admitted students. This gives prospective applicants an idea of what a typical accepted student’s academic credentials are. That way, they can determine if that school is a college match for them. 

college list
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In general, students who fall between a school’s 25% – 75% academic credentials range can consider it a target school or college match. Those that are above 75% can consider it a safety school, while those below 25% can consider it a reach school. However, test scores alone aren’t enough to determine your likelihood of acceptance and whether your college options are matches, reaches, or safeties.

A school’s overall selectivity has a large impact on where schools should land on your college list. The lower the acceptance rate, the more selective the school is, and the more difficult it will be to get in. For example, any college with an acceptance rate of 10% or lower should be considered a reach school on all college lists, regardless of any student’s stellar test scores or grades.

Two hypothetical scenarios

To better understand how these statistics can help you find the right college and build your school list, consider two hypothetical students, A and B, who are considering the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) as one of their college options. Let’s take a look at their academic credentials and walk through if the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign should fall as one the reach colleges, target colleges, or safety colleges on Student A’s and Student B’s college lists.

Student AStudent B
GPA: 3.2GPA: 3.9
SAT Verbal: 590SAT Verbal: 660
SAT Math: 580SAT Math: 785

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Admissions Info:

  • Middle 50% GPA: 3.58 – 3.95
  • SAT Reading and Writing: 580 – 660
  • SAT Math: 610 – 770

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has an acceptance rate of 61%, so both Student A and Student B have a good chance of getting in so long as they craft thoughtful, compelling applications. However, as you can see from the above statistics, Student B’s GPA and SAT scores are at the top or just above the school’s reported mid-50% range, while Student A’s academic credentials are below. With this information, The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is therefore likely a target school for Student B and a reach school for Student A.

Student AStudent B
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
is a Reach College
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
is a Target College

As you consider your college options, remember that one student’s college match may be your reach school or vice versa, and no two college lists will look exactly the same. Rather than basing your decisions on how other people view specific schools, make sure your college list has a mix of schools that are truly reach, target, and safety schools for you

How to make your college list: College Finder 6-Step Process

Now that you are becoming an expert college finder with the help of our College Finder Series, we want to break down how to build your college list into six easy steps. Once you’ve used our tips and tools from Part I of this College Finder Series to research some schools for your college list, we recommend using our College Finder 6-Step Process to narrow down your college options. This will let you create a focused and strategic target colleges list.

college finder
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1. Reflect on your priorities

As you start brainstorming your school list, think about what is important to you in your perfect college match. Deciding what you value in a school will make your choice easier as you narrow down your target colleges list. Before you start making decisions about the schools you’ve researched and trying to divide them into safety, reach, and target schools, you should rank the following priorities from most important to least important:

  • Diversity & Inclusion
  • Financing
  • Academic offerings
  • Location
  • School size
  • College setting
  • Campus life
  • Extracurriculars

2. With your top three priorities as your guide, narrow your college options down to a list of 20-25 schools

Your top three priorities will help you focus your college search and begin narrowing down to your final target colleges list. While 20+ schools are still a lot to choose from, focusing on your top three priorities will help you weed out schools from your college list that don’t align with your values.

3. Review the information you’ve collected from your college search on these schools and separate them into safety colleges, target colleges, and reach colleges

This is where you should use our tips from our College Finder Series to figure out if each school is a reach school, a target school, or a safety school. Remember, many schools don’t include SAT requirements or GPA requirements as part of their college admissions requirements, so look for that mid-50% range for admitted students. Also, be sure to factor in selectivity.

4. Rank the schools based on your priorities within each category of safety/target/reach. 

Now that you have separate college lists for your reach, target, and safety schools, it’s time to pick your favorites from each category. Ask yourself:

  • Which college is your favorite safety school? Why?
  • What school do you prefer as a target school? Why?
  • Which reach school is your favorite? Why?

Use our College Finder Series’ eight priorities to help you consider what about each school you like and why it should be on your target colleges list. Once you have your three college lists ranked from favorite to least favorite, you can work on removing schools from the bottom of all three college lists.

5. Narrow your list of schools down to 15, making sure there are at least three schools from each category

Having a mix of reach, target, and safety schools on your final college list will help you maximize your chances of admission. At the end of the college admissions process, you will likely receive some rejections (everyone does!). But, our hope is with the right mix of schools you’ll be happy with your college options when it comes time to make your final choice. It may seem unnecessary to have more than one safety school. However, getting into multiple safety schools will let you make a choice when it comes time to enroll.

6. Review that list of 15 and make any final cuts

If you had an endless amount of time, energy, and resources, you’d be able to apply to as many colleges as you want. But realistically, that’s just not possible. In general, we recommend capping the number of schools on your final college list to 15, but even 8-10 is plenty, so long as you have the right mix of reach, safety, and target universities. As you look at your final college list, take some time to really imagine yourself attending that university. If it still feels like a good fit, go with your gut, and get ready to tackle your applications.

How many target schools should I apply to?

One thing all college lists should have in common is target universities. For most students, target universities will make up the majority of a well-balanced college list. A good college match will be a school where your overall academic profile matches the typical admitted student. Additionally, target universities will accept at least a quarter of all applicants, meaning they have an acceptance rate of at least 25%. 

target schools
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When creating college lists, target universities should be considered your bread and butter. Typically, we recommend including 4-6 schools that you consider a college match. However, this exact number can vary depending on your priorities and how many total schools you have on your final college list.

While target universities are great because you have a good chance of being admitted, it is important to remember that not all target universities are created equally. Just because your academic credentials match those of admitted students doesn’t necessarily make your college options target universities and doesn’t necessarily mean they should be included on your college lists.

How many safeties and reaches on my college list?

While the majority of your college list should consist of target colleges, you want to make sure you include both safety and reach schools as well. 

Unlike target universities, a safety school is a school where you have an extremely high chance of getting in. That means your test scores and GPA are at or well above the mid-50% range and the acceptance rate is at least 50%. Many students choose to include an in-state public university as a safety school because they tend to give an admissions advantage over out-of-state applicants. When you build your college list, we recommend including at least one in-state option no matter what.

While it is important some of your college options are a target or college match, including reach schools on your college lists is just as important. If you are below those mid-50% ranges or if some of your college options have acceptance rates below 15%, you may not think these schools are worth applying to. However, remember that these schools admit thousands of students every year, so there’s no reason to limit yourself if you think a reach school could be a great fit for you! 

When you think about whether to keep or remove reach schools from your college lists, be sure to consider why you want to go there. If you feel passionate about attending a school that may not necessarily be your college match, don’t be afraid to keep it on your college list. Put it in your reach school column, set some deadlines, and be sure to reserve enough time to create a strong application that showcases all of your strengths.

Exploring a sample college list

Now that we’ve talked about safety schools, target schools, reach schools, and how they all contribute to your college list, let’s take a look at an actual sample college list. Here is our College Finder Series Sample Student Profile:

Greta’s Academic Profile
GPA: 4.0
SAT: 1310
Interests: Accounting/Economics/Business

Because applying to college is so expensive, Greta and her family decided that they could afford to apply to 10 colleges and universities. While this school list is below our suggested minimum of 12, as we’ve explained every college list will be different based on your individual needs. Applying to 10 schools is better than not applying to college at all! As you will see, Greta’s list includes reach, target, and safety benchmarks (including acceptance rate, SAT scores, and GPA requirements when applicable) as well as bullet points about school-specific offerings.

This sample college list is well balanced because it has a range of reach, safety, and target schools.

college list

Our College Finder Series Sample College List includes:

  • 3 Reach schools
  • 5 Target schools
  • 2 Safety schools

The reason we recommend having a mix of each type of college match is that it helps manage the risk all students face when submitting college applications. Having the majority of schools on your school list be either safety or target schools increases your odds of being accepted to multiple schools you are interested in. Having a few reach schools on your list ensures you are maximizing your potential and not limiting yourself based solely on what you think is likely or possible. Remember, unless a school has specific college admissions requirements that you don’t meet, there is always a chance of being accepted with a strong application.

Every college list is different

While example college lists can help you start thinking about which schools could be a good college match, remember no two lists will be exactly alike. Your school list might differ from this example depending on factors like your academic credentials, location, and financial need. For example, your college options might be more focused on one part of the country if it is important to stay close to family or if you prefer a certain climate or lifestyle. Additionally, if you need financial aid to help you afford college, you’ll need to consider tuition when you look at your college options. 

If finances are an important part of your decision-making process, your safety options might be in-state schools where you know you’ll receive in-state tuition. The rest of your list might only include private universities that provide full scholarships and aid packages. 

5 College Finder tips for creating your own college list

The best college lists are the ones that are individualized to your specific needs. Here are Five Tips from our College Finder Series to help you narrow down your college options and build your dream college list.

1. Ask for advice

Have a college counselor look at your school list and give you feedback. A counselor who knows you well can help give you direction as to what schools might be a good college match for you.

2. Only get info from trusted sources

Get information about schools from trusted sources. This includes the schools themselves and places like CollegeAdvisor! We’ve got a variety of great webinars including College List FAQs: Ask an Admissions Officer, Building Your College List, and Finalizing Your School List to help you work through every version of your college list.

3. Use college rankings and lists

Look at top college lists for inspiration. If you’re not sure where to start looking for college options, take a look at some top college lists, like U.S. News Best Colleges and Forbes America’s Top Colleges, to get a sense of potential reach, target, and safety schools.

4. Consider application requirements

Keep in mind the work it will take to send out your applications. Some schools don’t have supplemental essays, so you may choose to add some of those to your college list to reduce the amount of time you’ll need to spend on your applications.

5. Focus on balance

The best thing you can do is work to create a balanced list. We’ve said it a million times and we’ll say it again. Building college lists isn’t easy, but setting realistic goals about whether a school is a safety, reach, or target will help you feel confident sending out your applications and receiving your admissions decisions.

College List – Final Thoughts & Next Steps

We’ve designed our College Finder Series to help you maximize your chances of admission. When you really get down to it, creating college lists and deciding which schools you are going to apply to can feel as difficult as completing the applications themselves. By breaking down reach, target, and safety schools, we hope you have a better idea of what to look for and consider as you narrow down your college list.

If you’ve found any tips or tricks in our College Finder Series helpful so far, keep reading to see what’s coming next. Now that you’ve read Article One of the College Finder Series on how to search for colleges and Article Two of the College Finder Series on how to build college lists, stay tuned for the next article in our College Finder Series, which is all about helping you make your final college decision after you’ve received your acceptances. 

This guide was written by Becky Weinstein and Stefanie Tedards. No matter what stage you are at in your college search, is here to help. We’ve created a wide range of guides, like our College Finder Series, to help you navigate the college admissions process from building your school list all the way to packing for your freshman fall. Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how can support you in the college application process.