Which College is Right For You?

which college is right for me

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As high school students begin their process of looking at schools to apply to, they are confronted by the question: “Which college is best for me?” This is often a difficult question to answer, as what makes a college suited for one student may make it terrible for another.

Frequently asked alongside this, and a question we will be striving to answer in this article is: “How good of a school can I get into?” Many students wonder what schools they should apply to, but don’t know how to approach analyzing school’s admissions statistics and profiles to know what their chances are. In this article, we’ll discuss the tiers of schools and students, and which are best suited for each other.

Note that these tiers aren’t meant to denote that a particular school is better than another, or imply that you have to attend a high tier school. The purpose of these is as a tool to describe how hard it is to gain admittance to a given school, based on their admissions criteria, and which students have the best chance.

The Tiers of Schools

Colleges may be separated into tiers, based upon the difficulty of securing admission to them. Individual factsheets will have more information on specific, unusual majors of interest, and on the exact GPA and test score averages for specific schools. To that end, we are linking to school’s guides throughout these tier lists; follow these links to learn more about schools you’re interested in. 

Tier 1

These are schools with admissions rates below 10%. This means that of every 100 people who apply, fewer than 10 will be accepted. These schools want academic excellence and stellar extracurriculars, but those are only enough to get you into contention. MIT has reported that 70% of the students who apply are academically qualified, yet have an admission rate of 7%.

These are the most difficult schools to get into, and will be reach schools for all students, even the most qualified. This is not to say that gaining admission to these schools is impossible, merely that it should never be treated as guaranteed.

Tier 1 schools include: Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, UChicago, Caltech, Columbia, Brown, Northwestern, The University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Duke, Vanderbilt, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Rice.

Tier 2

These schools are still highly competitive, but less so than tier 1. They generally have acceptance rates below 20%. While they have similar demands for academic excellence and extracurricular achievement, the number of students who apply to them is smaller, meaning that each qualified student has a greater chance of acceptance.

Highly qualified students may count these schools as target, and most students can count them as reach schools, though it won’t always be worth applying to them. These schools are often less well known than tier 1 schools, but are nonetheless academically strenuous for it.

Tier 2 schools include: USC, Washington University in St Louis, Tufts, Tulane, NYU, Boston University, UNC Chapel Hill, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Notre Dame, Emory, University of Virginia, Wake Forest, UT Austin College of Natural Sciences, Boston College, Georgia Tech, William and Mary, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, and University of Rochester.

Tier 3

These are still good schools, but are not as competitive for admissions, as they have more spaces offered, and fewer applicants overall. The most qualified students will be able to treat these as safety schools, while less competitive candidates should treat them as targets. Admissions rates for these schools are generally below 35%.

Tier 3 schools include: UT Austin College of Liberal Arts, Villanova, Northeastern, Brandeis, Case Western Reserve, Occidental, Washington and Lee, Babson College, Virginia Tech, UC San Diego, Lafayette College, UIUC, University of Florida, and DePauw.

Tier 4

These schools are not famous, and include many smaller private schools or state sponsored research universities. They have admissions rates above 35%, and may be treated as target or safety schools by most students.

Tier 4 schools include: Penn State, Trinity University, SMU, Texas Christian University, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, UC Davis, UT Dallas, Texas A&M, Purdue, Rutgers, Temple, University of Maryland College Park, Whittier, Fordham, and most flagship universities in state systems.

Tier 5

These are safety schools for almost all applicants, and will admit most of the students who apply to them. These include local colleges, and the less prestigious branches of state university systems. While these schools are not “bad,” they are generally considered less prestigious. University of Houston is an example of such a school.

The Tiers of Students

Now that you have some idea of how competitive certain colleges are, we’ll cover how competitive students are as applicants. We have mentioned the idea of tiers of students several times, and also that of reach and safety schools; we’ll now define those terms. There is no judgment implied, and the tiers are not absolute, as a student can fit into more than one tier at once in different areas. The point is to determine which schools are best for you to apply to, and where you have the best chance of being admitted, so you can successfully manage the inherent risk of college applications.

First, let’s define what Reach, Target, and Safety schools are: 

  • Reach schools are ones you may qualify for, but which will be difficult to get into due to their competitive admissions profile.
  • Target schools are ones where you fit in the standard applicant profile. 
  • Safety schools are ones where your qualifications exceed those the college normally looks for.

It is good to have a mix of these schools on your application list. It’s encouraged to shoot for the stars, but a safety net allows you to do so fearlessly. While you shouldn’t limit your choices to only the safest possibilities, neither should you only apply to schools where your admissions chances are low.

Many applicants look for a formula for how many reach, target, and backup schools they should apply to. General wisdom is that applicants should apply to 6-10 target schools, 2-3 safety schools, and 3-6 reach schools in order to maximize admission chances. However, Ivy Scholars goes beyond general wisdom; more specific formulae for how to responsibly manage risk in college applications can be found below. 

Student Tiers

We introduced university tiers above, and now the trick is determining which tier a student should consider reach, target, and safety.

Tier 1: These students are in the top 5% of their class, a 3.9/4.0 for their unweighted GPA, have high standardized test scores (1530+ on SATs, 34+ on ACTs), have taken multiple AP and Honors classes, and have stellar extracurriculars. A student should fulfill all of these requirements to fit into tier 1. Examples of stellar extracurriculars include:

  • Solo performance(s) at Carnegie Hall
  • Participation in highly selective programs like the Research Science Institute (pay-to-play programs don’t count).
  • National competitive victories, like USAMO, Intel Science Talent Search, Debate Nationals
  • Large merit scholarships, like Davidson Scholars or Coca-Cola ($20k+) 

Tier 2: These students are in the top 10% of their class, and have high standardized test scores (1470-1530 SATs, 32-34 on ACTs). They have taken many AP classes, but have not necessarily gotten 5s on all of them. They have strong extracurriculars. Students in this tier may have one or more aspects of their applications that reach tier 1 levels, but do not meet all of them. Tier 1 students who are not US Citizens or Permanent Residents count as Tier 2 for candidacy purposes, since they’ll be in the more competitive international pool.

Tier 3: These students are in the top 20% of their class, and have good standardized test scores (1400-1470 SATs, 30-32 ACTs). They have taken AP and Honors classes regularly. They have some good extracurriculars, but nothing that stands out as much. Students who reach tier 1 in one category, but strongly lack in others, are generally placed into this tier. 

Tier 4: These are good students, in the top 33% of their class, and have decent standardized test scores (1300-1400 SATs, 28-30 ACTs). They have taken some APs and Honors classes. They have good, if unfocused, extracurriculars. 

Tier 5: These students have class rankings below 33%, SATs below 1300 or ACTs below 27. They may not have any advanced, honors, or AP classes, and their extracurriculars may not demonstrate the intellectual and personality traits universities seek out.

Each of these tiers of students has a track to determine their best strategy for applying to colleges. The point of this strategy is to ensure they get into the best program they can without taking on too much risk and possibly not gaining admission to any of their schools. Here are our recommended tracks by student tier. Note that these are general suggestions, each student is unique, and when we work with students we help them build a college list which reflect their individual needs: 

  • Tier 1 students interested in the most competitive schools apply to 15 reach schools, 2-4 target schools, and 1 safety school. 
  • Tier 2 students interested in the most competitive programs apply to 10 reach schools, 5 target schools, and 2 safety schools. 
  • Tier 3 students interested in the most competitive programs apply to 5-6 reach schools, 5-10 target schools, and 2-3 safety schools. 
  • Tier 4-5 students interested in the most competitive programs apply to 4 reach schools, 10 target schools, and 3 safety schools. 

Admission is highly stochastic, meaning that even applicants who fit a university well face some degree of randomness in actually gaining acceptance. Generally, higher-tier students mitigate risk by applying to more programs, so they have more chances to gain admission to at least one.

Final Thoughts

These tiers aren’t meant to be definitive, but rather to serve as guidelines when you’re picking which schools you should apply to, and determining which you have the best chance of being admitted to. These are general rules, and specific circumstances can and do complicate matters.

If you want more personalized advice on your choices of colleges to apply to, we have a long experience helping students find the best college for them. Schedule a free consultation with us if you want more in depth analysis of your personal chances for college admissions, and advice on what schools would be the best fit for you.

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Wendy Y.
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Many people are dissuaded from seeking a college counselor because they think they can get into their desired college(s) either way. Honestly, going that route is a bit short-sighted and can jeopardize your odds of acceptances after years of hard work. The sad truth is, the American education system (even if you attend a fancy private school and ESPECIALLY if you go to a public school) doesn't really tell students how to write a compelling and authentic application. Going into the admissions process alone, without speaking with an advisor, is like going to court without a lawyer - you put yourself at a significant disadvantage because you don't have all the facts in front of you, or the help you need to negotiate the system.

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We worked with Ivy Scholars during my son's senior year. I was concerned that we may be too late to take advantage of college advising but the Ivy Scholars team quickly and confidently directed us through the steps to ensure no deadlines were missed. Sasha's knowledge about schools, what they looked for in candidates, and how to maneuver the application process was invaluable. Mateo and Ryan worked with my son to help him create an essay that would get noticed and I am so appreciative he had their guidance.

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