What Colleges Should I Apply To Making a College List


With more than 5,000 colleges to choose from across the country, you might be asking yourself, “What colleges should I apply to?”

How do you narrow thousands of schools down to just 10?

The best way to streamline your college list is to divide it roughly equally between

safety schools


match schools

, and

reach schools


This guide will go over exactly what these terms mean and how to choose the best schools for you. Before taking you through the process step by step, though,

let’s review the research process as a whole


Making Your College List: Full Process

This guide will go over a few important points, all for the purpose of helping you

make your college list

. Ultimately,

your mission is to choose a few safety schools, a few match schools, and a few reach schools


First, you must understand what colleges are looking for in their applicants. To make your own list, you should focus mostly on

your GPA and SAT/ACT scores


While grades and test scores typically aren’t the only important pieces of your college application, they’re sufficient to give you a rough estimate of your admission chances. Once you know what a college expects, you can


PrepScholar’s admission calculator

to see how your credentials stack up


This guide will go over each step of this process, starting with an explanation of

how colleges evaluate candidates

. As you read, keep in mind your primary mission: to make your ideal college list.

What Determines Your Chances of Getting Into College?

If you’ve started down the college admission road, then you probably have a good sense of what colleges look for in applicants. Most colleges fall into one of two categories when it comes to admission decisions:

  • Those that use

    assured admission
  • Those that take a

    holistic approach

Read on to learn about both.

Assured Admission

Assured admission is pretty much

based solely on grades and test scores

. If you have a minimum SAT or ACT score and GPA, then the college will let you in.

Oklahoma State


Washington State

are two schools that use assured admission.

(Note that this might be slightly different for

the 2020-2021 application class because of COVID-19

. Some schools have gone test optional, meaning they aren’t requiring you to submit test scores. For more information,

check out this article


Several others offer assured admission for

in-state residents

, including state schools in California, Iowa, Missouri, Mississippi, Texas, and Nevada. If you live out of state, then other factors will become important, too.

Holistic Admission

Many other colleges take a holistic approach. In addition to your grades and test scores, they will consider your

extracurricular involvements


community service

, and any


, as well as the academic and personal qualities

that come through in your

recommendation letters


personal essay

. These colleges are seeking to get to know the “whole person,” including your interests and goals.

Because these other elements come into play, it’s

tough to make an exact prediction

of whether or not you’ll get into a school.

Competitive schools

, such as

those in the Ivy League

, can especially be a gamble.

Even if you can’t know for sure whether you’ll get accepted, you can still

estimate your chances of admission based on your GPA and SAT/ACT scores

. Before delving into how to do this, however, let’s review why estimating your chances is a key part of making your college list.


Colleges that use holistic admission go beyond the numbers to learn about you from lots of different angles.

Estimating Your Chances of Admission

By understanding what colleges look for in applicants, you can

figure out which schools qualify as safety, match, or reach schools for you

. You can focus on the

average SAT/ACT scores

and GPA of accepted students while keeping in mind the other factors that come into play for holistic admission schools.

If your own scores and

GPA are much higher

than those of the average accepted student, then you might consider that school a safety. If the reverse is true, then it might be a reach school for you.

To help you more precisely estimate your chances, we’ve developed a handy admission calculator. But before showing you how to use it to make your list,

let’s go over the different ways you can research your colleges of interest


How Can You Find Data on Prospective Colleges? 3 Resources

To estimate your chances of getting into a specific school, you should

compare your grades and test scores to those of the average accepted student

. So where can you find this information?

There are three main sources:

  • College search engines
  • Official college admission websites
  • PrepScholar’s database and admission calculator

Let’s start with the search engines.

#1: College Search Engines

When you first start to research schools,

college search engines

can be your best friend. They let you set various filters—such as GPA, test scores, location, and school size—to learn about schools.

You can set as many or as few filters as you like and then explore what comes up. As you read, research, and perhaps visit campuses, you’ll start to

narrow down your list to the top contenders

. After using search websites, you might compile a list of 20 schools or so.

Of course, sending 20 applications would take a lot of time and money, so you probably want to narrow it down to your

top eight or nine

. By taking a closer look at the schools’ expectations, you can further consolidate your list. Find out more about each school on its official website and in PrepScholar’s database of schools.

#2: Official College Admission Websites

Your college research is sure to lead you to your college’s website pretty quickly. You can learn a lot about a college on its website, especially its

admission section


Most colleges publish data on the

average GPA and SAT/ACT scores of accepted students

each year. To find this information directly, you could try searching for “[School Name] average SAT scores” or “[School Name] average GPA.”

To give you one example, the following graphic is lifted from

NYU’s website

. It shows the average (unweighted) GPA, average SAT score range (with section scores), and average ACT score range of incoming freshmen:


Every admission site is different, and some only offer limited information. To find this data right away, head on over to

PrepScholar’s database

. Not only will you find info on your schools, but you’ll also find the admission calculator you can use to estimate your acceptance chances!

#3: PrepScholar’s Database and Admission Calculator

PrepScholar has a streamlined way for you to

find the average test scores and GPA for your colleges

. Simply search for “[School Name] PrepScholar” to find this info, along with all the other application requirements.

For instance, here’s

PrepScholar’s information on NYU’s average SAT scores



In addition to learning what test scores and grades you need, you can also

use our admission calculator to estimate your chances

. This tool is located near the bottom of our PrepScholar admission requirements page for each school. Simply input your grades and test scores.

The example below shows the admission chances to NYU for a student with an SAT score of 1410 and a 3.7 GPA:


As you can see, a student with a 1410 on the SAT and a 3.7 GPA has

about a 13% chance of admission

. Of course, this is

just an estimate

as other factors come into play for a school like NYU that uses holistic admission.

As mentioned at the beginning of this guide, figuring out your admission chances is a critical step in making your college list. By understanding your actual chances, you can narrow down your list into safety, match, and reach schools.

Read on for a precise definition of each and the steps for finding yours.


Like a pup in his security blanket, make yourself comfortable by applying to two or three safety schools.

Want to build the best possible college application?

We can help.

PrepScholar Admissions

is the world’s best admissions consulting service. We combine

world-class admissions counselors

with our

data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies

. We’ve overseen thousands of students get into their

top choice schools

, from state colleges to the Ivy League.

We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit.

We want to get you admitted to your dream schools


Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions

to maximize your chance of getting in.

Get Into Your Top Choice School

What’s a Safety School?

Making your college list requires you to

do some research on the colleges you’re interested in

. Once you have a sense of their respective requirements, you can sort them into safety, match, and reach schools.

Let’s start with your safeties. You might

choose two to three safety schools

for your final list. A safety school is one where

your academic credentials are much stronger than those of the average accepted student


You feel relatively confident that you’ll get accepted. You might have an

80% or higher chance of admission

, an estimate you can make with our admission calculator.

As you saw above,

some schools have assured admission

for all applicants or in-state residents. If you have one of these on your list, then you could consider it a safety school.

Safety schools usually aren’t your first choice, but

they should still be schools that you’d be happy to attend

. So how can you go through the research process discussed above to find your two to three safety schools?

How to Find Your Safety Schools

As we talked about, you can look for info on your college’s official website and PrepScholar’s database.

Let’s say, just to give an example, that you’re interested in the

University of Mississippi

. On its official website, you’ll find

this information about regular admission



If you’re a resident of Mississippi and meet the GPA and test score requirement, then you have

automatic acceptance


assured admission

). If this describes you, then you can definitely consider Ole Miss to be a safety school.

If this doesn’t describe you or you still want to find more information about this particular college, you can consult PrepScholar’s database.


our database page for Ole Miss

, you’ll find that the average GPA is 3.6, the average SAT score is 1160, and the average ACT score is 25.

Let’s say you got a 1200 SAT score and currently have a 3.6 GPA.

Plug in these stats to calculate your admission chances

, as so:


As you can see, a student with this SAT score and GPA has roughly an 90% chance of getting accepted. Since that’s

greater than 80%

, this student can consider Ole Miss a safety school.

Go through this process and use the admission calculator to

find two to three safety schools

where your chances of getting in are 80% or greater


Next, you can choose two to three match schools.


Pick a match, but not just any match. Also, what kind of magic trick is this? Looks dangerous.

What’s a Match School?

Match schools, also known as

target schools

, are

schools where you have a good, but not guaranteed, chance of getting accepted

. In other words, your academic credentials line up with those of the average accepted student.

While your safety schools might not be your first choice, match schools are typically

ones you’d be excited to attend

. So how can you pick your match schools?

These should be

schools where you have somewhere between a 20% and 80% chance of admission

. Those on the lower end might be borderline reach schools, while those on the higher end are borderline safeties.

Read on for a step-by-step example of finding a match school.

How to Find Your Match Schools

As mentioned above, you could consider a college to be a match school if you have

between a 20% and 80% chance of getting in

. Research your colleges’ requirements and head on over to PrepScholar’s admission calculator to estimate your chances.

For instance, here’s a student interested in

Purdue University

. She has a 3.5 GPA and a 1260 SAT score. Both of these are fairly close to the average GPA and SAT score for students at Purdue. So what are her chances of getting in?


With this GPA and SAT score, the student has about a 39% chance of getting in. Remember that other factors come into play, so her extracurriculars, essay, and recommendation letters

might boost (or weaken) her admission chances


Choose about

three match schools across this range

of 20% to 80% chance of admission. Once you’ve done that, you can finish your college list with a few reach schools.


The final spots on your college list are reserved for reaches. This kid’s actually reaching for a frisbee, not a college application. He’s 10.

What’s a Reach School?

Once you’ve selected your safety and target schools, you can pick a few reach schools. Often,

reach schools


ones that you aspire to and would love to attend, but can’t count on the fact that you’ll get in


Ivy League schools, by the way, should be considered a reach for just about any student, even if you have a perfect GPA and SAT/ACT score. Beyond the Ivies, you might consider any school where you have a

20% or less chance of getting in

to be a reach school.

For reach schools, the credentials of the average accepted student are stronger than yours.

At the same time, they’re not so much higher that you have no shot of getting accepted.

Let’s go through an example of researching a reach school.

How to Find Your Reach Schools

Reach schools will

make up the last one-third of your college list

. In this next example, let’s consider

Boston University

. BU accepted students currently average a 3.71 GPA and 1420 SAT.


A student with a 3.7 GPA and 1290 SAT score has about a 8% chance of getting in.

Her chances aren’t impossible, but they’re certainly not guaranteed.

While you should carefully craft all your college applications, you especially want to make a strong showing to reach schools. If your grades and test scores fall below expectations, then you should consider

how you can present other aspects of your candidacy

to give you an edge.

Once you’ve chosen your reach schools, you should be just about finished with your college list! You should have about two to three each of safety schools, match schools, and reach schools.

While your chances of getting accepted will help you narrow down your list, there are several

other considerations when picking your colleges

. Let’s review a few of the most important.


In addition to estimating your chances of getting accepted, make sure to research financial aid! Some colleges these days seem to think this is what the average student’s dorm room looks like.

Want to build the best possible college application?

We can help.

PrepScholar Admissions

is the world’s best admissions consulting service. We combine

world-class admissions counselors

with our

data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies

. We’ve overseen thousands of students get into their

top choice schools

, from state colleges to the Ivy League.

We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit.

We want to get you admitted to your dream schools


Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions

to maximize your chance of getting in.

Get Into Your Top Choice School

Making Your College List: 3 Extra Tips

So far, this guide has mainly focused on the

hard data of picking schools

. To help you make concrete choices about your safety, match, and reach schools, you can focus on the numbers: average SAT/ACT scores, average GPA, and your chances of admission.

Beyond estimating your chances, you should

consider other factors

when making your college list. There are a number of factors to think about, but for the purposes of this guide, let’s focus on three main tips.

#1: Consider Financial Aid

Financial aid is

a huge factor

for many students. If you’re one of them, it should definitely

factor into your application


In addition to figuring out your chances of admission based on your GPA and test scores,

research schools’ financial aid policies

. While you can’t always predict what your

financial aid package

will look like, you can get a sense of how much each school will meet demonstrated financial need.

If you get in and can’t afford to attend, then the notions of safety, match, and reach schools are irrelevant. Make sure your schools represent

realistic options

. On a similar note, be sure that all the schools on your list are ones you’d be reasonably happy to attend.

#2: Only Apply to Schools You’d Actually Like to Attend

While your excitement about schools is sure to vary, you should still

be reasonably excited about


of them

. Students sometimes treat safety schools as throwaways, but that approach is unwise.

Your safeties are on your list for a reason, and you don’t want to end up feeling stuck or without options. There are

tons of schools

throughout the country. If you haven’t found at least two to three safety, match, and reach schools you like, then

keep looking


#3: Find Your Best Fit

A lot of other factors go into your college search than just estimating your chances of admission.

When you start using

college search engines

, you’ll start to think about



looking for

in terms of school size, location, majors, extracurricular offerings, or even internship or study abroad opportunities.

While you might not be sure what you plan to do or study, you should still take advantage of this time to self-reflect. Consider what excites you and

what you like to study

and do.

Some students are swayed by a school’s reputation or prestige, but they should consider the level of fit even more seriously.

Fit is a two-way street.

Find a place where you think you’ll enjoy studying and living for

the next four years of your life


In closing, let’s go over the key points to remember about making your college list.


As long as you do your research, you can feel confident about your college list!

Conclusion: What Colleges Should I Apply To?

There’s no magic number of

colleges to apply to

, but a good total for most students is

between eight and 10 schools

. About one-third of these can be safety schools, one-third match schools, and one-third reach schools.

To figure out your safeties, matches, and reaches,

research your chances of admission for each school you’re interested in

. PrepScholar’s admission calculator offers a great way to plug in your GPA and test scores and roughly estimate your chances.

An over 80% chance of admission qualifies as a safety school, between 20% and 80% falls into a match school, and under 20% is a reach. Highly selective schools such as the Ivies are pretty much

reaches for everyone

, even students with perfect grades and test scores.

By taking advantage of available data and our PrepScholar acceptance calculator,

you can gain a realistic understanding of your admission chances

and put together a well-researched college list.

Once you have your schools, you can focus on

crafting the strongest application

you can!

What’s Next?

What other factors go into choosing a college?

If you’re wondering which college you should attend,

check out this great guide on how to choose


Will you be applying for financial aid?

This comprehensive guide takes you through

the FAFSA application process step by step


Are college applications a financial burden for you?

Learn about

how you can get a college application fee waiver


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