We snagged the following chapter from our comprehensive Guide To Elite College Admissions, a resource created specifically to help students and parents navigate the difficult process of college admissions.  
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CHAPTER 3: WHERE TO APPLY TO COLLEGE
 
1 – OKAY, SO WHERE SHOULD I APPLY?
 
Great question, my friend. So great, we’ll go ahead and make it the title of this chapter. Another great question that goes along with it is: How many schools should I apply to?
 
Consider this for a moment: even if you’re Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Marie Curie wrapped up in one genius package, and you have the kind of top- notch extracurricular activities that would make Oprah Winfrey proud, you’re probably not going to get in everywhere you apply. That’s just the nature of the game! Tens of thousands apply each year to every top-50 university, and in order to keep their admission numbers competitive, most schools do not accept the majority of applicants.
With that in mind, you should apply to roughly ten colleges. If you play your cards right, this all but guarantees that you get a spot somewhere, and will (hopefully) give you several colleges to choose from. You probably won’t get into all ten schools, but you might get into five, which will give you a better range of options when making your final decision.

While it might seem a bit pricey to apply to ten colleges (application fees range from $35-75), it will be more than worth it when you secure admission to at least one school.
And while it might seem like a lot of work, the Common App (more on that later) and online applications make it easier to apply to more schools.

But wait — how do you know which schools to apply to? Let’s talk about how to choose.

2 – TARGETING THE BEST SCHOOL FOR YOU
 
First, roll up your decision-making sleeves and get ready. You should start by taking a nice, honest look at your academic record, extracurriculars, and other qualifications; in essence, your complete package. Do you like what you see? Good! Let’s use the following chart to begin assessing what kind of student you are.
How do your grades and SAT scores measure up? Comparing your statistics with the statistics of typical admitted students will help you narrow down your school search.
 
You’ll want to apply to several “probable” schools whose “typical student” profiles are similar to yours. HOWEVER, you should also apply to a couple “safety” and “reach” schools. Safety schools are colleges that you know you’ll get into, probable schools are colleges you think you’ll get into, and reach schools are schools you dream of getting into.
 
Whether you apply to 7, 10, or 15 schools, you should include the following types of schools in your final list.
 
1. Safety (2 or more)

Safety schools are colleges that you are 95%-100% sure will admit you. Your grades are well above what the school asks for, and your SAT scores are 100-300 points above those of the average accepted student.

Why do we recommend applying to safety schools? One word: competition.
Because there is so much competition for college admission, many qualified students simply get bumped out of their dream schools. It is critical to have a back-up plan. You never know what will happen; no matter how bulletproof your application may be, you simply never know. Applying to a few safety schools is a smart way to backstop your risk.
 
While your safety school may feel like a step down, every school has an honors program or intensive track you can take advantage of, if you are so inclined. In other words, you’ll still have a chance to excel and achieve great things. And you can always attempt to re-apply to your first-choice schools during your freshman year of college,
and transfer during your sophomore year. If you go above and beyond during your freshman year, receive excellent grades and craft a rock-solid application explaining your reasons for wanting to transfer, you might end up at your dream school after all.
 
So, which schools are safety schools? Well, it depends on the strength of your candidacy. Most people’s safety schools are state colleges like the University of Massachusetts or the University of Wisconsin, simply because they’re less selective (remember, they have a greater number of spots to fill). But your safety schools could also be high-caliber but less selective private universities like Boston University, American University, and Fordham University.
 
Using the chart above, you should be able to get a sense for the range of schools you can apply to. It all depends on where you want to go and what your academic background is. If you’re in the top 10% of your class with rocking test scores, a good example of a safety school is Vassar College. Vassar is a great liberal arts college, but it’s not as well known as other top schools, so its admission rate is a touch less oppressive. If you’re more of a B-type student with mid-range SAT scores, a good choice for a safety could be Ohio University. With Ohio’s somewhat relaxed academic standards and larger student body, your chances of acceptance would be pretty high.
 
To make it even clearer, take a look at the case studies below:
2. Probable (3-5)
 
These are schools that you have a solid shot at getting into. You’ve looked over their profiles, examined their statistics, and determined that your academic record, test scores, and extracurricular activities match up with what the school is looking for. You are a snug fit, nicely in their range of caliber, but you do not exceed their profile type.
 
Students should apply to 3-5 probable schools. If you apply to 5 schools in this category, “probably” you’ll get into 2 or 3. Let’s look at some more case studies:
3. Reach (3+)
A “reach” school is a school that may be difficult for you to crack, but a place where you have a fighting chance. If your profile doesn’t quite measure up to the school’s average, there may still be an outside chance that there is SOMETHING about you and your background that may intrigue a school. You can always dream!

Here’s an example. Imagine that in the year you apply, all of Dartmouth’s trumpet players are graduating seniors. This means that the Dartmouth admissions counselors are looking for great trumpet players to replace them so that the award-winning Dartmouth Jazz Band doesn’t lose its competitive edge. While your academic profile is less competitive than the average student at Dartmouth, you are an amazing trumpet player. Normally, with your grades and test scores alone, you might not make the cut. But that particular year, your special skill is exactly what Dartmouth is looking for and BOOM — you’re admitted.

You should apply to at least 2-3 reach schools. Again, you never know.
3 – NARROWING DOWN THE CHOICES
 
First of all, remember the Golden Rule: go to the best school you can get into. With thousands of choices at your fingertips, the Golden Rule principle should guide your very first step: evaluating your candidacy.

1. Evaluate your Candidacy
 
To see what a good probable school would be for you, you’ll need to figure out how you compare with people who are typically accepted to that school. Line up your stats (SAT score, other standardized test scores, GPA, and extra-curricular achievements), and see how they compare to “typical accepted students” at your school of choice.
Here’s a breakdown of schools by competiveness, to help you get a sense of where you fall:

Tier 1
 
Ultra-Elite – These are schools that typically take students with 3.9 or better GPAs, and SATs in the 2250-2400 range. They include Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Williams, and Amherst. These are the hardest schools to get into, no matter WHO you are.

Elite – These schools are the “normal” cream of the crop. You still need great grades (GPA 3.7 or higher) and SAT scores (2100-2350), but they’re not quite as cutthroat as the Ultra-Elite. Columbia University, Brown University, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and Duke University are good examples of this tier.

Above Average – Not quite Ivy League, but still very well respected. You’ll need a GPA of 3.7 or so, and SAT scores of 1800 or above. Good examples of schools in this tier are Tufts University, Wesleyan University, University of Michigan, and Smith College.
 
Solid Choices – Rochester Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Macalester College are typical “solid choice” schools. They have similar requirements (GPA of 3.6-3.8) and SAT scores of 1700-1900, but their rankings are a bit lower, and their acceptance rates are more relaxed.
 
Tier 2

Although they’re not quite as prestigious, schools ranked 50-100 still have decent academic and activity offerings. Their acceptance rates range from 35%-50%, making them easier to get into than Tier 1 schools. Accepted students usually have GPAs from 3.5-3.7 and SAT scores from 1600-2000. Examples of Tier 2 schools include Fordham, Tulane, and Florida State University.
 
Tier 3
 
These are typically larger state schools, with acceptance rates of 50% and up. If you’re a successful, competent student with average SAT scores, you’re likely get into one of these schools. They’re ranked 100+, and include places like Ohio University and the University of Wyoming.
 
2. Pick Your Tier, Choose Your Schools
 
Using these descriptions, see which tier you fit in. Are you a Tier 1.3 person or a Tier 2 person? Once you know what tier you’re in, pick a few probable schools using that tier’s guidelines. Then, select 2-3 schools that are a step or two higher in rank, and 2-3 that are a step or two lower in rank. Bam! You’ve just figured out your probable, safety, and reach schools.
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When you pick your probable schools, you can let school size, geography, and social scene play a small part in which ones you select. But you should always have your eye on the ranking. The higher the ranking, the better caliber of students you’ll be surrounded by, which will help you with future success.

In our opinion, you should always go to the best school you can get into. (Did we mention that yet?) Really like the small-town feel of Smith College? That’s fine. You should totally go to Smith, unless you get into Columbia University, in which case, you should absolutely go to Columbia (even though it’s in the middle of New York City). Because guess what? Your life will probably be better for it. Columbia has a bigger, more powerful alumni network, and employers/admissions counselors are going to be more impressed that you went to an Ivy League school. Besides, you’re more adaptable than you think you are... you might think you could never like a school in a huge and crowded city, but chances are that while you were busy adjusting to all the other unfamiliar aspects of college life, you’d adapt to New York City too. So don’t let your preferences get in the way of your potential!
 
In summary: aim high! Don’t worry about where the school is located, or how much it costs. Just focus on getting into the best college you possibly can. Familiarizing yourself with college rankings (and figuring out how you fit into them) will help you to do this.