College admissions committees divide students into “buckets” based on various desirable qualities.

Applying to College: Making a List

Before you can begin the college application process, you first have to know what colleges and how many you are applying to — yes, colleges plural. Many counselors recommend applying to at least three. There are a few basic rules you need to know before we go any further.

Do not limit your options. Take a look at your GPA and standardized test scores. How do they rank in comparison with accepted applicants to the schools you are considering applying to? For a more holistic determination about where you stand as an applicant, check out the college’s website to see their applicant requirements and recommendations. This can easily be found on most schools’ websites or at the top of a simple Google search. Websites such as Prep Scholar display a school’s level of competitiveness, as well as what average GPA and average standardized test scores fall in the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile. This will allow you to see how you might fare. If your GPA and test scores fall in the 75th percentile, for example, that means you scored higher than 75% of the applicants and are therefore in an excellent position. This link shows an example of this spectrum using Harvard University.

If you find that the college is unwavering on a requirement that you may not have filled, find out how you can fill that requirement. If you cannot, you may not be accepted. For example, to be considered for acceptance by the University of California system, California residents must have a minimum UC GPA of 3.0, which is the UC system’s way of recalculating GPA. After ensuring that you fulfill all necessary requirements to apply to a certain college, use the previously listed methods to evaluate how you rank as an applicant to that school. Is your GPA much lower, higher, or approximate to the average? Do you have less than, more than, or the standard amount of demonstrated leadership that a school explains they look for on their website? Admissions officers will take your background and other aspects into consideration to make their assessment, but some schools are more or less particular with their academic and extracurricular requirements. 

This information will allow you to place a college in one of three categories: “reach, “fair,” or “likely.” A school in the ”reach” category is one you think you have a possibility of being admitted to, though the odds are not great. Perhaps your GPA and standardized test scores are lower than average, but you could make it up somewhere else – like important leadership positions or starting your own successful organization. Colleges place each of their applicants in what are called “buckets.” These are unique aspects of an applicant that a college would find appealing to have in their next class, from being a CEO of your own startup to being an award-winning poet. Buckets can also be much simpler, such as being a first-generation college student or coming from a certain ethnic background or nationality. One year, a college may want a student who is especially knowledgeable in a certain field — perhaps an expert in corals for a research project. While there’s no way of knowing what even the most selective schools are looking for in their pool of applicants each year, know that you might fit into a bucket that will make your acceptance. That’s why there is no reason why you should not have at least one “reach” school. Even though you might come short in certain areas, there’s the possibility that you may fill a bucket that college is looking for.

A “fair” school is one that, based on some basic research about the school, you believe you have a decent chance of getting into: you fulfill the requirements and are better than average in certain areas, whether that may be an above-average list of extracurricular activities or an exemplary academic record. A school that falls into this category is not a sure bet, though.

A “likely” school is one that you have no doubt you will get into because you far exceed the school’s expectations, both academically and non-academically. Your GPA, test scores and extracurriculars are well above average for the school. A “likely” school could also be described as a safety school. The most elite universities in the country, such as the Ivy League schools, are exceptions to this category. No applicant is ever a “sure bet” for such competitive schools. 

Making sure your college list includes at least one school in each of these categories will give you some security. That way, you will not miss out on applying to your dream school, even though it may be a stretch, but you’ll also have a school you’re likely to be admitted to. For extra assurance, add a school to your list that you would consider a “backup backup.” This may be a community college or a four-year university with a higher acceptance rate; a quick search can find this information, too.

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