Making Your College List: The 3 Types of Schools to Include

Michelle Chan
Michelle Chan

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With over 4,000 degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the US alone, narrowing your college list is a daunting process, and with college applications costing around $25 to $90 each, how do you know which ones to apply to? When you start making your college list, there is a lot of freedom. However, there are also 3 major types of schools you should be sure to include.

Categorizing your schools of choice into three sections may ease your stress:


Target schools are colleges whose academic profiles match your personal academic profile. This means that your average GPA, ACT/SAT score are on par with the average accepted student’s scores. Keep in mind, just because your grades and test scores are within the middle 50% of the school’s academic range, this does not guarantee admission. There are other factors that are taken into account when admission officers decide to accept a prospective student, such as extracurriculars and the competitiveness of the school’s applicant pool.


Reach schools are, as the name suggests, colleges you have to “reach” for. This means that they have academic profiles whose average scores are higher than yours. Maybe you have a 3.5 GPA and your reach school’s average is a 3.9 GPA. Your grades may be out of range, but getting accepted is still possible with a killer essay and the right standardized test scores. Your academic profile can’t be way out of the ballpark, though. You’ll still need to meet the school’s basic requirements in order to be considered for admissions; having mostly C’s and D’s probably won’t cut it when applying to Harvard or Yale.


Safety-schools are also pretty self-explanatory. They have academic profiles whose averages are lower than yours and have higher acceptance rates, so the chances of acceptance should be fairly high. According to Prep Scholar, “Your GPA should be well above the average student’s at that school and your SAT or ACT score should be above the 75th percentile for that school.”

How Many Total?

Now that you’ve classified your schools into those three categories, how many of each should you apply to? Generally, a good number seems to be 2-3 reaches, 3-4 matches, and 2-3 safeties. However, some students only feel the need to apply to five schools while others are comfortable with 20 schools under their belt. Only you know what’s best for you, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 

And honestly? If, at the end of this article, you think that this framework does not fit your needs, feel free to disregard this structure. No school is a bad school––someone’s safety school may be someone else’s reach school. But if you’re still struggling to figure out how to consolidate your college list, this structure may just be the solution.

Finally, if you’re still unsure how to build your college list, visit Empowerly.

Questions? Let us know!