fbpx
which college is right for me

Which College is Right For You?

As high school students begin their process of looking at schools to apply to, they are confronted by the question: “Which college is right 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 school is definitely 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. Read on to learn how to determine which college is right for you.

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. Understanding these tiers will help you determine which college is right for you.

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 targets, 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, William and Mary, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, and the 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, UIUC, Villanova, Haverford, Northeastern, Brandeis, Case Western Reserve, Occidental, Washington and Lee, Virginia Tech, UC San Diego, Lafayette College, DePauw, and Rutgers.

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, Temple, University of Maryland College Park, Whittier, Fordham, University of Florida, 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.

The Tiers of Students

Now that you have some idea of how competitive certain colleges are, we’ll cover how competitive students are as candidates. 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 school normally looks for.

It is good to have a mix of these schools on your application list. It’s alright to shoot for the stars, but a safety net allows you to do so fearlessly. While you shouldn’t limit your choices to only sure things, 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. The 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, around 3.9/4.0 on 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 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, may be 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.

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 a more in-depth analysis of your personal chances for college admissions, and advice on what schools would be the best for you.

5/5
Wendy Y.
Parent
Below is my son's review. He was accepted to his dream Ivy League school!

From an admitted student's perspective, I am incredibly grateful to have met Sasha - he has been instrumental in helping me achieve my educational dreams (Ivy League), all while being an absolute joy (he's a walking encyclopedia, only funnier!) to work with.

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.

That said, you need a good lawyer just like you need a good college counselor. And that's where Sasha distinguishes himself from the crowd of people claiming they'll get you into Harvard. I came to Sasha worried about and frankly dumbfounded by the college admissions process. I was unsure what to write about and how to go about drafting the essay that perfectly captured my passion, interests, and self. And I was highly skeptical that anyone could really help me. But, damn, did Sasha prove me wrong. From the beginning, Sasha amazed me with his understanding of the process, and ability to lend clarity and direction to me when I desperate needed it. After interviewing me about my background, experiences, activities, outlook, and vision, he helped me see qualities about myself I had not previously considered 'unique' or 'stand-out.' This process of understanding myself was so incredibly important in laying the groundwork for the essays I eventually wrote, and I'm certain I would've drafted boring, inauthentic essays without it.

Looking back, Sasha's talent is that he can see where your strengths lie, even when you don't see them. The truth is, although we don't always realize it, everyone has a unique story to tell. Sasha helped me see mine, and with his big-picture insight I was able to write the application that truly encapsulated my life and vision. He inspired me to dig deeper and write better, challenging me to revise and revise until my essays were the most passionate and authentic work I had ever written. As clichéd as that sounds, that's really what universities are looking for. In retrospect, it makes sense - in the real world passionate (not simply intelligent) individuals are the ones who make a difference in the world, and those are the individuals colleges would like to have associated with their brand.

In the end, I was accepted to the college of my dreams, a feat I could not have achieved without the direction Sasha lent to me. Essays (and the personal narrative you develop through your application) matter so much, and can literally make or break your application. I have seen so many of my 'qualified' friends receive rejections because they wrote contrived essays that didn't truly represent who they were; conversely, I have also seen so many friends with shorter resumes accepted because they were able to articulate their story in a genuinely passionate and authentic way - I fall into the latter category.

As a former admissions officer at Johns Hopkins, Sasha knows what types of essays jibe well with universities, an invaluable asset to have in the admissions process. He is responsive, flexible, creative, positive, and witty. For anyone who is serious about going into the college admissions process informed and prepared, I highly recommend Sasha.
5/5
Arda E.
Student
I used Ivy Scholars to mainly help me with college applications. Within weeks of using this service, Sasha was able to simplify the already complex process. When it came to writing the Common App essay, Sasha didn’t just help with grammar and syntax, he brought my essays to life. Sasha also worked tirelessly to help solidify my extracurricular activities, including research and internship opportunities. Without his help, I would have never had an impressive resume.

Sasha is not only an extremely knowledgeable tutor, but also a genuine brother figure. His guidance, throughout my last two years of high school, was everything I needed to get me an acceptance letter from my dream schools (UC Berkeley, Tufts, Emory).

When it came to testing, Ivy Scholars worked like a charm. Sasha offered a very comprehensive plan when it came to completely acing my standardized tests. Without his test taking strategies I would have never gotten straight 5s on my AP tests and a 35 on the ACT.

Working with Sasha, I didn’t just become a good student, I became a genuine scholar.
5/5
Samson S.
Parent
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.

Prior to securing Ivy Scholars, we tried using a less-expensive online service which was a terrible experience. As a parent, Ivy Scholars brought peace of mind to an area that was frankly overwhelming. This service was invaluable in the knowledge that we gained throughout the process. He has also met with my freshman daughter to provide guidance for her high school courses, career paths, extracurricular activities, and more.

Prior to signing with Ivy Scholars, I tried a less expensive online service and was very disappointed.

As a result of our work with Ivy Scholars, I am pleased to say that my son will be attending Stern Business School at New York University this fall! I highly recommend Ivy Scholars. Highly recommend!