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  • Writer's pictureJulie Simon

A Tale of Two Lists

Updated: May 20, 2022

As we head into the latter part of junior year, we begin working with our students to finalize their colleges lists to ensure they are well-balanced in terms of the likelihood of admission. Chance of admission is an estimation based on many factors; however, two are most important—the college's selectivity and the student's academic performance (GPA, course rigor and test scores).

When finalizing a college list, we aim for our students to apply to 7-10 colleges (2-3 likely, 3-4 target, 2-3 reach). We’ve found that this is the “magic number” as it not only provides the best chance of acceptance with opportunities for scholarships but also ensures the student has the time and energy to craft thoughtful applications that will stand out. We strongly recommend all of our students to follow this advice.

Let’s compare two examples from students in recent years who applied with similar academic profiles.


Student A hails from a competitive public high school with a full IB diploma (universally known as one of the most demanding courses of study) and has a 3.9 unweighted GPA and a 1480 SAT. He is a member of his school’s orchestra and is a leader of four organizations, including Model UN, National Honor Society, and a national community service organization. He decides he wants to attend the most selective school that will offer him admission and takes an aggressive approach to his college list.

His List:

  • 4 Unlikelies—Stanford, UPenn, Princeton and Northwestern

  • 3 Reaches—University of Michigan, Tulane and Northeastern

  • 2 Targets—University of Miami and University of Wisconsin

  • 1 Likely—Indiana University

Student B attends a strong private high school and has taken 6 AP courses and many honors courses. She has a 3.9 unweighted GPA and a 33 ACT. She is well-liked at the school, captain of two sports, participates in several clubs, is a board member for a local religious organization and works a part-time job throughout the school year. She plans on attending graduate school and decides to take a more moderate approach to her college list in the hopes of increasing her merit-based scholarship opportunities.

Her List:

  • 1 Unlikely—Harvard

  • 2 Reaches—Tufts and Boston University

  • 4 Targets—Syracuse, Lehigh, Southern Methodist and University of Maryland

  • 3 Likelies—Loyola University Chicago, University of Pittsburgh and Marquette


Student A was admitted to 2 colleges: 1 reach and 1 likely. Student A was awarded one merit-based scholarship from his likely school—$10,000 over four years.

Student B was admitted to 7 colleges: 1 reach, 3 targets and 3 likelies. Student B received merit-based scholarships from four schools totaling $306,000, including a small scholarship at her reach school.


What are your goals for your college list? Do you envision a list more like Student A or Student B? Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you formulate your list:

  • Is it most important to you that you attend a highly selective college?

  • Are you looking for schools that are more likely to offer merit-based scholarships?

  • Do you want to have a lot of college options to choose among?

  • How do you handle rejection?

  • Would you be ok if you were denied from most of your colleges?

Ushering countless students through this process, we’ve learned that those with the most college choices have lists that tend to look more like Student B, but ultimately, the choice is yours. Remember, for a college to be a good fit, it must meet your academic, social, financial, and emotional needs. Be sure to stay true to these wants and needs throughout the entire process.

Most importantly, all of the colleges on your list should be colleges that you would love to attend, whether they are a likely or a reach.

Finally, ensure that you openly talk as a family about the approach you want to take with your list, including any financial and additional considerations, so that you are all on the same page when it comes time to apply!

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