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How to Target the Right Target Schools

A lot of attention gets paid to the reach schools on your list, those uber selective places where even the most qualified students have a small percentage chance of gaining admission. We certainly understand and celebrate high ambition. However, smart students construct balanced lists comprised of schools they love across different levels of selectivity.

For any number of great reasons – access to internships and research opportunities, scholarships, etc. — it might make sense for you to choose to attend one of your target or safety schools. It’s crucial that you approach selecting them with the same level of scrutiny and self-awareness that you apply to your reach schools. Then after you’ve been accepted to multiple places, you can make a choice about what’s ultimately the best fit for you.

Target schools are those colleges in the “goldilocks zone” of your list. Your grades and test scores are right in line with their averages, preferably a little higher. And the college’s admit rate is at least over 20%. There should be reasonable predictability of your success at your target schools. Nothing is ever guaranteed, but if you submit a thoughtful application and demonstrate the appropriate level of interest, it is more likely than not that you will be admitted.

Students interested in having the most robust list of acceptances at the end of the process will typically create college lists that include 50% or more schools from the target category. They are intentional about how they select these schools and they don’t treat the applications as a foregone conclusion.

As you decide which schools to include on your target list, ask yourself the following questions:

Can I see myself thriving on this campus?

Finding a school where you can be happy should be a high priority. A place that speaks to your emotional as well as intellectual needs is more likely to create an environment where you can flourish than one where you don’t feel “at home.”

As you evaluate which schools in the target range make sense to include on your list, think about what you hope your day-to-day experience will look like. What conditions – in and out of the classroom – are most necessary for your happiness? Taking selectivity out of the equation, how engaging do you envision your experience as a student to be at that particular school?

Make a list of qualities or characteristics of each of your potential target schools and compare them against each other. Early in the process, don’t compare them against your dream schools; they should be in their own separate category.

What special opportunities might I have as a student here?

The most selective college on your list might not be the one offering you the greatest access to resources or autonomy in shaping your future. Consider the importance of being treated as an academic VIP to your future grad school or career plans.

Perhaps there’s a program of interest or a special fellowship or study abroad opportunity that catches your eye at a target school you’re considering. Maybe their teaching style is so unique – like the block plan at Colorado College, for example – you’re compelled to strongly consider how you would benefit from that environment. As you build your list, be mindful of these distinguishing factors. If you’re unsure how any of the schools you’re considering stand out in these ways, dig deeper before deciding to apply.

What would a diploma from this institution mean for me?

The “value” of a diploma from any institution is an imprecise measurement at best; but you should feel confident that each school on your list would position you well for future success. The combination of prestige, practical training, and classroom experience factor together to create this value.

As you select the targets you’ll apply to, consider how they fulfill each of these criteria for you. Perhaps they are highly celebrated in the specific department you hope to study. Or perhaps there’s a certain professor whose research would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join. Or, likewise, maybe that school is just forming a department in an area you want to study and being on the ground floor of shaping it would surely help you stand out in grad school.

Think about the person you hope to be upon graduating from college. That process starts now, with constructing a thoughtful list. Have a clear answer how each of the schools you apply to – especially the targets, the ones you’re statistically the best match for – will support you becoming the person you envisioned in your not too distant future.

The expert admissions consultants at Wise World Prep have helped hundreds of students maximize their potential of being admitted to their top choice colleges and universities. Over 20 years, we have successfully guided students through each stage of the application process – from choosing competitive high school courses to building an appropriate college list to drafting winning essays to writing persuasive update and appeals letters. We would be happy to answer your questions and partner with you to create a successful admissions roadmap.

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