Applying to the right college or university

September 24, 2021

How do I choose the right colleges to apply to?

This is one of the first questions teenagers ask after they’ve made the decision to pursue a university degree after high school. The answer is simple, but the work takes time. The key to identifying where to send your college application is to first think ahead to career options. 

Educational consultant Laurie Genevish (My Ideal College) is one of our partners who helps families understand just how important it is for a teen to think through their interests and abilities before the application process. Her research shows that if your job contains at least 75% of what you naturally like to do, you will be THREE TIMES more successful.

Think about the questions that are answered in your spikeview profile: Who am I? What motivates me? How do I spend my free time? What accomplishments am I proud of?

Many high schoolers end up pursuing colleges based on name recognition rather than program focus. Whatever your particular interests, there are universities that would be a good fit! 

How many colleges should I apply to?

The question of quality vs. quantity. Counselor and researcher Andrew Belasco says your mission is to narrow down 3,000 potential colleges to a final list of 8-10 schools

The numbers can feel overwhelming, but don’t believe the myth that there’s just one dream school for you. Andrew offers the important reminder that there are dozens of colleges with the same characteristics as The One in the back of your mind.

Challenge: narrow down college application options from 3,000 to 8-10

Reach school (small chance of getting in)

First, a reminder to stay humble. No matter how gifted you are in academics, arts, or sports, there’s always someone with a longer list of accomplishments. That said, universities don’t want all their students to be carbon copies. They want a diverse student body, as long as the applicants align with the school’s mission. 

Applying to one or two reach schools is worth the effort. But if you know your grades, for example, are below the average applicant, how can you stand out? In short, tell stories that surprise and delight the admissions officers. 

Susan Adams is an education writer who shares specific ideas for teens trying to pitch themselves to highly competitive schools. You should apply this same advice when pursuing target and safety schools.

Target school 

In Goldilocks terms, target schools are the ones that seem to fit you just right. All the considerations like course selection, athletics, location, etc. line up with your goals. 

Rob Franek is editor-in-chief at The Princeton Review. He defines the target school as one where your academic credentials fall well within the school’s average range for the most recently accepted class. In other words, your peer group is at this college. 

Check out Rob’s advice in this short video:  

Safety school (almost guaranteed to get in)

Carolyn Lawrence offers some excellent college admissions pointers, including this gem: love your safe bets as much as you love your reaches

You’ll need to be ready to explain why any of the universities on your list are a good fit, and that includes the safety net. Align your entire list with your interests and goals.

“Ok, I’m ready to start applying to college!”

Yes, you can apply to multiple colleges, but let’s recap the steps before you jump in!

  1. Know thyself. You’ve done some type of self-assessment to identify the degree programs that align with what you naturally like to do.
  2. Categorize colleges. You’ve focused your energy on target schools, but also have reach and safety options.
  3. Pitch thyself. A lesser-known maxim but vital to your success! Include your spikeview link in the Additional Information section of the Common App, or as supplemental information in other forms.

Good luck!


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