Creating a College List: Reach, Target, and Safety Schools

When it comes to building your college list, you may have heard the terms “reach,” “target,” and “safety” schools. But what do these terms actually mean, and why is it important to have a balanced list with all three types of schools? Applying to college is a strategic process, and crafting the right college list is key to ensuring you have a balanced set of options that align with your academic profile and aspirations. 

Let’s dive into the three categories of schools you should consider: reach, target, and safety.

What Are Reach Schools?

Reach schools are your “dream” institutions, with highly competitive acceptance rates typically below 25% that make admission a true challenge. These are the schools where your academic profile (GPA, test scores, etc.) may be below the institution’s average. Getting into a reach school is a long shot, but it’s still worth applying if it’s your dream school. Just don’t put all your eggs in one basket. For example, let’s consider the University of Chicago. With an acceptance rate of just 5.4%, it’s a reach school for even the most academically gifted students. 

To determine if a school is a reach, honestly assess your academic credentials against the institution’s admission statistics.

Identifying Your Target Schools

Target schools are where your academic profile fits squarely within the school’s averages. These colleges typically have acceptance rates between 25-49%. Your chances of getting in are generally good, as you’re solidly in the school’s typical admitted student range. Many students apply to a mix of target schools as the core of their college list.

Let’s consider the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).

According to the latest data, UT Austin has an acceptance rate of around 32%. This means that out of every 100 applicants, 32 are admitted.

The middle 50% GPA range for admitted students at UT Austin is 3.75 to 4.0. The middle 50% SAT range is 1320 to 1490, and the middle 50% ACT range is 30 to 34.

Now, let’s say a student has the following academic credentials:

GPA: 3.85

SAT: 1400

ACT: 32

When we compare this student’s profile to UT Austin’s admission statistics, we can make the following assessment:

GPA: The student’s 3.85 GPA falls within the middle 50% range for UT Austin, indicating it could be a good target school.

SAT: The student’s 1400 SAT score also falls within the middle 50% range, further supporting the idea that UT Austin could be a target school.

ACT: The student’s 32 ACT score is within the middle 50% range, rounding out the strong academic profile.

Your Safety Schools

Safety schools are those where your academic credentials are above the institution’s averages, and the acceptance rate is over 50%. These are the institutions that provide a high likelihood of admission, while still challenging the student and offering the programs and resources they need to excel.

It’s important not to underestimate the value of safety schools. Just because they have a higher acceptance rate compared to reach and target schools doesn’t mean they should be treated as fallback options. These institutions should still align closely with your educational and career aspirations. By including these important safety schools, you can maximize your chances of finding the right fit and securing admission to a college that will help you thrive.

The Importance of Having a Mixed On Your College Lists

  1. Manage risk and increase chances of admission:
  • Reach schools are highly selective, so including them provides the opportunity to aim for your dream institutions, but the chances of admission are lower.
  • Target schools align well with your academic profile, giving you a reasonable chance of being admitted.
  • Safety schools have a higher acceptance rate, providing a safe option and ensuring you have somewhere to attend.

By including this mix, you can manage the overall risk of your college applications and increase your chances of getting into at least one or more suitable institutions.

  1. Ensure fit and alignment with your goals:

When creating your college list, it’s important to ensure that:

  • The schools align with your personal preferences, academic goals, and core values.
  • The list realistically accounts for your admissions prospects at each institution.
  • Every school on the list is one you would be genuinely interested in attending.

If your college list does not satisfactorily meet these criteria, you should continue your research to find the best mutual fit between you and the institutions. Thorough research for college options requires time and effort, but it’s a crucial step to identify the right schools for you.

  1. Maintain motivation and a positive mindset:
  • Applying to only reach schools can be discouraging if you’re not admitted, potentially leading to a loss of motivation.
  • Including safety schools gives you the confidence that you have options, reducing stress and keeping you motivated throughout the application process.
  • The mix of school types ensures you have a balanced list and don’t put all your hopes into a single outcome.

How to evaluate a school’s admission statistics to determine if it’s a reach, target, or safety school?

Let’s walk through an example to illustrate how to evaluate a school’s admission statistics and classify it as a reach, target, or safety school.

Let’s consider the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as our example.

According to the latest data, UCLA’s acceptance rate is around 12%. This means that out of every 100 applicants, only 12 are admitted.

To determine if UCLA is a reach, target, or safety school for a particular applicant, we need to look at their academic profile and compare it to UCLA’s admitted student statistics.

For UCLA, the middle 50% GPA range for admitted students is 3.9 to 4.0. The middle 50% SAT range is 1360 to 1530, and the middle 50% ACT range is 31 to 35.

Now, let’s say a student has the following academic credentials:

GPA: 3.8

SAT: 1400

ACT: 33

When we compare this student’s profile to UCLA’s admission statistics, we can make the following assessment:

GPA: The student’s 3.8 GPA falls slightly below the middle 50% range for UCLA, suggesting it may be a reach school.

SAT: The student’s 1400 SAT score falls within the middle 50% range, indicating it could be a target school.

ACT: The student’s 33 ACT score also falls within the middle 50% range, further supporting the idea that UCLA could be a target school.

Based on this analysis, we can classify UCLA as a reach school for this particular applicant. While the student’s SAT and ACT scores are in the target range, the GPA is slightly below the middle 50%, making UCLA a challenging, but not impossible, option.

This example demonstrates how to closely examine a school’s admission statistics, including acceptance rate, GPA, and test score ranges, to determine whether it should be considered a reach, target, or safety school for a given applicant. 

Conducting this evaluation for each college on your list is crucial in developing a well-balanced college application strategy.

Example College List

Let’s say you have the following academic profile:

GPA: 3.8 unweighted

SAT: 1350

Strong extracurriculars and recommendations

Based on this, your college list could look something like:

Reach Schools:

University of Chicago

Northwestern University

University of Michigan

Target Schools:

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Pittsburgh

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Safety Schools:

Illinois State University

University of Iowa

University of Missouri

How Many Schools Should Be On My List?

There’s no single, universal number of colleges that should be on a student’s application list. However, a general guideline that often works well is to have a balanced mix of reach, target, and safety schools. The general recommendation is to aim for around 8-12 schools.

This range strikes a good balance between having enough options to choose from, without overwhelming yourself with an excessive number of applications.

Here are some key considerations:

  • Time and effort:

Applying to a large number of colleges, say 15 or more, can be very time-consuming. Each application typically requires essays, transcripts, recommendations, and other materials.

The more colleges you apply to, the more time and effort you’ll need to dedicate to the process, which could be detrimental to your other academic and extracurricular commitments.

  • Application fees:

College application fees can add up quickly, especially if you’re applying to a large number of schools. Keeping the list to 8-12 colleges helps manage these financial costs.

Most students have a limited budget for application fees, so being selective with the number of schools can help ensure you don’t overspend.

  • Maintaining options:

Applying to fewer than 8 colleges may not provide you with enough options when it comes time to make your final decision. Having 8-12 schools on your list, with a balanced mix of reach, target, and safety institutions, ensures you’ll have multiple acceptances to consider and choose from.

Factors That Impact Admission Chances

  1. Academic Performance:
  • A student’s GPA, course rigor, and standardized test scores (if required) are typically the most important factors in the admissions process.
  • Colleges want to see a strong academic record that demonstrates a student’s ability to succeed in a challenging college curriculum.
  1. Extracurricular Activities:
  • Colleges look for applicants who have made meaningful contributions outside the classroom.
  • Involvement in activities showcase a student’s interests, talents, and personal qualities.
  1. Essays and Recommendations:
  • The personal essays and letters of recommendation provide valuable insights into a student’s character, passions, and potential.
  • A compelling, authentic essay and positive recommendations can significantly strengthen an application.
  1. Demographic and Personal Factors:
  • Factors like a student’s geographic location, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, and other personal attributes may be considered by some colleges.
  • However, the weight and role of these factors can vary greatly between institutions and their specific admission policies.
  1. Institutional Priorities:
  • Colleges have their own strategic goals, such as diversifying their student body or attracting students from certain regions.
  • These institutional priorities can sometimes influence admissions decisions, particularly for borderline applicants.
  1. Application Timing and Deadlines:
  • Applying early decision or early action can provide a boost in admission chances for some colleges.
  • Meeting deadlines and submitting a complete application package is crucial for maximizing admission prospects.

While academic achievements are the primary drivers of admission decisions, colleges also consider extracurricular activities, essays, and letters of recommendation. Showcase your passions, values, and unique contributions to stand out in the application process.


Begin researching colleges and building your list well in advance. Create a timeline to keep track of deadlines and application requirements for each school. Staying organized will help you navigate the process with confidence and ensure you submit your best work.

In the end, crafting a college list is about finding the right fit – academically, socially, and financially. By understanding the reach, target, and safety school categories, you can develop a balanced strategy to maximize your chances of admission and find the institution that will propel you towards your goals.

Check out our blog post “How to Use the Common Data Set to Build Your College List” for more guidance on how to build your college list using the Common Data Sets.

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