When Your Dream School is Only One of Several Reach Schools

Reach for the Sky and Give Me All Your Money” was a classic vaudeville routine. The clueless bank teller keeps trying to do both at the same time while the frustrated robber ramps up into full tantrum mode. Abbott and Costello worked this one almost as hard as “Who’s on First?

Reaching for the sky is an exercise in futility, but reaching for admission to a highly selective college is not. Although acceptance rates at Ivy League and other elite universities are very low, you do have a chance of succeeding. However, there’s an element of risk. That’s why we at IvySelect advocate spreading your admissions risk in ways that promote the accomplishment of your educational goals.

As the first step in our admissions consulting process, IvySelect develops an in-depth profile of you as an individual, including your interests, goals, talents, academic record, preferences, and strengths. With this information, we prepare a strategic college admissions plan for you. We use this plan to guide you in building a list of those schools that fit your profile best.

IvySelect helps you select schools based on how well they fit your personal profile rather than according to an extrinsic metric. We advise against targeting Reach schools on the basis of a school’s brand reputation, exclusivity of admissions, or rankings on lists like US News. We know that the degree of difference between highly selective institutions can be subtle but substantial. Even the Ivy League schools are not monolithic. In fact, they differ in significant ways. IvySelect stays informed on the unique characteristics of elite Reach schools that may make them a good fit for you as an individual.

We recommend a list of 12 or 13 schools. Less than this limits your options and more tends to spread your effort too thin and lower the quality of your applications. Since you aspire to attend an elite institution, we advocate an unbalanced list favoring Reach schools consisting of, generally, 8 Reach schools, 3 Match schools, and 2 Safety schools, allowing for some flexibility in the distribution.

Let’s define what we mean by Match and Safety schools, and then continue with advice about Reach schools.

  • A Match is a school at which your academic record (grades,SAT or ACT scores, and class rank) falls well within the school’s middle third. It’s reasonable to expect to be accepted by your Match schools, although it’s not a sure thing.
  • A Safety is a school at which your academic record equals the school’s top incoming freshman. You should feel assured that you’ll be admitted to your Safety Nevertheless, Safety schools should appeal to you. Should it become necessary, you would feel comfortable attending one of your Safety schools.

In the context of highly selective admissions, admit rates in single digits and the low to mid teens make these institutions a Reach for everyone, even those students with superb grades and test scores and outstanding extracurricular activities.

However, even if a Reach is your dream school, it shouldn’t be a pipe dream. For example, a student with a 2.9 GPA and 1380 SAT, Princeton isn’t a Reach college – it’s an impossible college. The student’s profile doesn’t even come close to median qualifications academically. In fact, it’s below even the lowest 10 percent of freshman admitted to Princeton. So, unless you’re a legacy from a big donor family and your ancestor’s name is on the main library, don’t waste your time.

Colleges have specific but variable needs that they seek to satisfy. Research these needs by going to college fairs and on campus visits. Speak with college admissions officials to find out the current needs in their student body. Then make sure that your application reflects your “hook,” that is, how you help the school in meeting one of their needs. Make clear that you’re an attractive prospective student by emphasizing your hook.

Your “hard factors” (i.e., your grades, rigor of curriculum and standardized test scores) for admission to a Reach school, if competitive, will put you in the admissions conversation, but it is your, hook and your “soft factors,” which can help you stand out from the crowd. Therefore, it is important to submit essays and recommendations that are well beyond the ordinary. Communicate the value of your extracurricular achievements, especially those that support your hook. Clarify the impact that you’ve made on your community. Your objective is to inspire an admissions officer to advocate on your behalf when deciding whom among qualified applicants is most admission-worthy.

Due to our vast experience in helping many students gain admission to top-tier universities, IvySelect understands how important it is to have an ambitious but balanced list of schools. Your IvySelect college consultant has the expertise to help you craft a college list that emphasizes your background and interests. Even if you come to us with a working list, we are able to offer our professional judgment to refine your list, potentially adding several great-fit schools that you may not have considered.

Students with a balanced list undergo less stress during the application process. These students are excited about the schools to which they’ve applied as well as the fact that some of them are well within their admissions potential. They feel more in control of their destiny because they’re not subject only to the decisions of a few ultra selective institutions.