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Your Dream School: What It Is and How CollegeAdvisor.com Can Help

Finding your dream school can be a real challenge. Or, maybe you already know the schools you want to attend but aren’t sure how to get started. In this guide to dream schools, we’ll help you answer the following: 

  • How do I find my dream college?
  • What is a reach school?
  • How many of my dream schools should I apply to?
  • Is it worth it to attend your dream school?
  • What is a target college?
  • How do I pay for my dream college?

According to CNBC, the Common App reported that the number of college applicants increased by 13% last year. Total applications increased 22% compared to 2020, and 27% of last year’s applicant pool was first-generation students. With more students applying to college, the definition of “dream school” is shifting. Let’s get started by defining “dream school.”

At CollegeAdvisor.com, we specialize in helping students navigate the college process and get into their dream schools. We offer the advice you need to find your dream college, target colleges, and reach schools. Create your free account and connect with our network of 300+ Admissions Experts and former Admissions Officers today.

What is a dream school?

You’ve probably heard a lot of people talk about dream schools as they review their college options. A dream school is usually defined as the school you most want to attend. In some cases, you may have been dreaming about this school since you were a kid. Your dream college might also be very selective, which could limit your admissions odds.

Your dream school will typically offer outstanding programs in your field or boast an excellent overall reputation. For example, if you want to study engineering, your dream school list may include MIT and Caltech. Other students may base their dream schools on reputation, aiming for the Ivy League or other schools that top the college rankings. And, finally, your definition of “dream school” may also be impacted by location and where family members and friends have attended. For instance, a student may be attracted to NYU for both the academics and the chance to study in New York City.

It’s up to you

So as you think about dream colleges, remember that your list may look different than your friends’ lists or even the popular rankings that sites like U.S. News produce. Depending on your criteria, your dream school may not be a “reach” school.

Next, let’s look at the difference between “reach,” “target,” and “safety” schools. Understanding the differences between a “reach” college, a “target” college, and a “safety” college can help you make the best choices as you build your school list.

Acceptance rates are often a big part of how students define a “dream school.” For more information on acceptance rates, check out our guide.  

Getting into your dream school can be challenging. Writing a strong college application essay can sometimes make up for lower grades or test scores. A well-written high school resume and the right recommendation letters can also help you get into your dream school.

What are some dream colleges?

Dream colleges are as diverse as the students they attract. Many students’ dream schools match up to the best college lists published by websites like Forbes, U.S. News, and Niche. These lists often include schools like Princeton University, Harvard University, Columbia University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

What makes these schools “dream schools”? Often, it’s the school’s reputation. There’s a certain amount of prestige attached to schools like Harvard or MIT. As a result, more students apply. As the number of applicants rises, the total number of slots available doesn’t. This drives these dream schools’ acceptance rates lower.  

Factors that determine a dream school

In other instances, dream schools are determined by a student’s location. A student may dream of studying in different parts of the U.S., far from their home state. For many students, college is the perfect time to explore places that you may eventually want to make your home. In these cases, a student may dream of a place more than a particular college. They might also associate a particular school with a city. Dream colleges often associated with cities include NYU, the University of Arizona, American University, and others.  

A student may also settle on a dream school for more sentimental reasons. They may want to attend the same school as a parent/guardian or sibling. There may also be famous alumni that they connect with or a faculty member that they’d want the opportunity to learn from. 

Now that we’ve covered what a dream school is and what that may look like for different students, let’s look at “reach” schools.  

What is a “reach” school?

A “reach” school is one that offers a slight-to-moderate chance of acceptance for students of your GPA and accolades. Let’s break down what that may look like:

For instance, if a student is looking to attend the University of California, Berkeley, which has an average GPA of 3.86-4.0 and an average SAT score between 1330-1530, then they’ll want to compare their own GPA and SAT scores to the school’s reported averages. If their scores are lower than the reported averages, then they would consider this school a “reach.” 

Identifying a school as a “reach” based on your test scores and GPA does not mean that you won’t be admitted. It does mean, however, that your odds of acceptance aren’t as high as they would be at another school. 

Understanding the difference

A reach school may not be the same as your dream school. Using the same example, if your dream school is UC Berkeley, but your GPA and test scores are well within the ranges listed above, then the school isn’t a reach for you. 

Some reach college options, however, may be out of reach for almost all students. For example, both Stanford and Harvard accept only five percent of applicants. Similarly, Yale accepts seven percent of those who apply, while Boston University applicants have a one in five chance of being accepted. Even for the most qualified students, these schools offer only a small chance of success in gaining admission. So, it’s important to take each college’s acceptance rate into consideration. 

Next, let’s look at more differences between dream schools and reach schools. 

Dream Colleges vs. Reach Colleges

As we said above, your dream college may or may not be a reach college. For example, it may be your dream to attend the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. If your test scores and GPA exceed the averages reported by the university, and you’ve looked at both in light of UMich’s acceptance rates, then the school may not be a “reach” for you. In fact, if your dream school typically accepts students with similar test scores, grades, and extracurricular activities to yours, your dream school might also be one of your target colleges. 

If your dream school admits only a small percentage of applicants, however, it’s likely a reach school. Most often, we find that many students’ dream schools coincide with the nation’s top universities. Application data also aligns with this—schools like Harvard have experienced a large increase in total applications in the past year.

Test-optional

Since COVID-19 has forced many universities to suspend their standardized testing policies, students who would not have normally applied to these “reach” schools now feel like they can pursue their dream schools. These “dream” schools, which were already a “reach” for many students, have quickly become a “reach” for MOST students, regardless of how impressive their candidate profile may be.   

This is why it’s important to look at the stats for each school that you’re interested in. Knowing the difference between a “reach” and “dream” school (and instances where they are the same thing) can help you build a solid school list. 

Next, let’s look at target colleges. 

What is a “target” college?

Target colleges are also referred to as “match” colleges because they are a good match for your GPA and other qualifications. Applying to target colleges can allow you to arrange for fallback options if you cannot attend your dream school. 

If your dream school is a target college for you, you have a better-than-average chance of acceptance at your dream college. In most cases, a target college offers you a high chance of acceptance. 

Since target colleges match your qualifications, attending a target college can also reduce the stress that can be associated with the heavy workloads and high academic demands of other schools. 

What is a “safety” college?

Now that we’ve covered the differences between dream schools, reach schools, and target schools, let’s look at the final bucket—safety colleges. Safety colleges offer a more than 80% chance that you will be accepted. This can provide a fallback if you don’t get into your dream schools, reach colleges, or target colleges. 

If you are wondering how to find safety schools, you can often find information on acceptance rates online or by consulting with your school advisor. A safety school, as its name suggests, is far less stringent with its admission requirements than a target college. 

Adding a few safety schools to your list can ensure that you find the right place for your studies. So, try to find safety schools that you’d be excited to attend! Also, it’s important to approach building your school list with the right perspective. Just because you’ve labeled a school a “safety” doesn’t mean that you won’t get a great education there or go on to be successful after college. So, remember that where you attend school is just a starting point—each student needs to be willing to approach their studies with a sense of purpose (and fun!). Often, students find that the second choice becomes the “right” choice. 

dream school

How many applications should you submit to each type of school?

Now that we’ve defined what a dream school, target college, reach school, and safety school are, let’s talk about how many of each you should apply to. Depending on your qualifications, your applications should reflect a balance of each of the school types we’ve covered. This will give you plenty of college options once decisions roll in. 

You can break down your college list like this:

Dream colleges

If you have more than one dream school, you should apply to all your dream colleges. This can improve your odds of getting into at least one of your dream schools or target school options.

Reach colleges

Depending on the time you have, you should apply for three or four reach colleges. These are schools where your GPA and test scores are at or below the average range of accepted students.

Target colleges

Most experts recommend applying to five target colleges to maximize your chances of success. Your target colleges are a good match for your skills and GPA, which can significantly increase your admissions odds.

Safety colleges

Students with strong academics and relevant extracurricular activities can usually get away with applying to only one or two safety schools. If your GPA or overall qualifications are less than ideal, however, more is usually better when applying to safety schools and target colleges. That way, if you don’t get into your first-choice university, you have options.

Sending out applications to a mix of schools will give you more confidence during the college process. 

Ready to start building that college list? We can help! Connect with one of our 300+ Admissions Experts or former Admissions Officers for help building your perfect college list. Click here to create a free account and start researching schools today.

How do I choose my dream college?

Maybe you’ve known your dream school(s) for years. Or, perhaps, you’ve only begun to think about what your dream school would look like. Either way, you’ll want to pare that list down to identify which dream schools you should apply to. Once you have your list, try to visit as many of your dream schools as possible. Finding the right college can take some research. Friends, family members, and advisors can offer guidance on how to choose a college. 

Some of the most important factors to consider when selecting your dream colleges and target colleges include the following:

Your academic interests

Make sure your dream colleges offer the classes and the degree programs you need. This will help you make the best choices for your college career.

Campus culture

Make sure the atmosphere at your chosen school fits your preferences. This will help you be happier and more productive during your college years.

Location

If you want to stick close to home, it is a good idea to consider dream colleges within an easy drive. In some cases, target colleges in your home state can be far more affordable, which can be a major factor for some students.

Preparation for your career

If you already have a career path in mind, look for target colleges or dream colleges that provide the right preparation for your future.

Work-study opportunities

One factor in deciding how to choose a college is the amount of financial aid you will need. Investigating the work-study options at your target college choices and dream colleges can offer added confidence in your ability to afford your first-choice schools.

Understanding how to choose a college is important. Knowing how to find the right “college fit” can help you choose a target college and find your dream colleges. This can help you find the best approach to your application process for dream colleges and target colleges alike.

How do I get into my dream college?

Now that you know how to choose a college, it’s time to think about how you will present yourself during the application process. If you lack the key qualifications needed for your dream school, you can attend a target college for a semester or two to enhance your resume. If your financial situation permits, you can also consider a semester abroad or a gap year to expand your credentials and increase your admissions odds.

It is worth noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the college admissions landscape. This can cause delays in processing your application. Even for a target college, it may be worthwhile to opt for early admission to get your answers ahead of time. As you consider early admission, applying early to a target college can be a useful backup option if you don’t get into your dream school.

Getting into your dream school can be challenging. Writing a strong college application essay can sometimes make up for lower grades or test scores. A well-written high school resume and the right recommendation letters can also help you get into your dream school.

How to pay for your dream school?

If you think it’s too early to start thinking about how you’ll pay for school, it’s not! Often, one of the biggest barriers to attending their dream school that students encounter is insufficient financial aid. If you are worried about how to pay for college, there are a number of strategies to fund your education in a practical way.

Paying for your dream college can be difficult. In some cases, scaling back your plans to a more affordable target college can reduce your tuition bills. 

So, think carefully about your finances as you build your school list. If you approach this question carefully, you can typically reduce any student loan debt. This will remove some pressure from your college experience and help you remain financially stable after you graduate.

Want to learn more about how CollegeAdvisor’s Admission Experts navigated tuition and other fees at their dream schools? Check out some of our resources

Dream Schools–Final thoughts

While we hope that all of the information in this guide is helpful as you build your college list, we want you to leave with a few key takeaways: 

Your dream school should be unique to you

Picking a school based on rankings, prestige, or even where friends and family members have attended isn’t always going to serve you well academically or personally. Take the time to really research the schools that you’re interested in and make sure that they’re the right fit. 

Don’t just focus on the stats

It can be daunting to apply to your dream school if your test scores and GPA don’t quite meet the institution’s reported averages. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apply. Instead, build the strongest application possible while still exploring your other college options. 

Keep perspective

It’s never wise to fixate on any one school. If you view a single school as your only option, you may set yourself up for disappointment if you attend and find that your dream school is not all you thought it would be. And, if you don’t attend that dream school, you may find yourself so disappointed that you’re unable to enjoy the otherwise great academic environment that your second choice offers. 

The bottom line: we know that the process of building a college list can be stressful. Finding a dream school and facing the possibility of not being able to attend can cast a shadow over the application process. We hope, however, that you have fun during the process and open yourself up to the possibility of discovering new dream schools along the way! 

About CollegeAdvisor: 

Whether you are interested in getting into Harvard or looking for help completing your college application checklist, CollegeAdvisor.com offers the tools you need to plan your future. We can help you learn how to choose a college and build a balanced school list including target colleges, reach schools, and safety schools.

CollegeAdvisor.com offers an extensive selection of more than 100 essay guides to help you ace your dream school or target school application. Some of our most popular guides are listed below:

These resources can help you succeed as you apply to your dream school and target college options. 


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At CollegeAdvisor, we have built our reputation by providing comprehensive information that offers real assistance to students. With a team of over 300 Admissions Experts and former Admissions Officers, we have the expertise you need to succeed as you apply to your dream school. To get started, visit us online or call (844) 343-6272 to schedule your free advising consultation. We’re excited to help start you on the path to a successful future.