Choosing colleges could seem like an intimidating process until you actually begin. The process is basically twofold and can be simplified into two essential questions.
“Where do I want to go?”
The first one was the fun part for me. I got to explore the programs each school offers, ask myself what major/minor I want to pursue in the next four years, and even visit some campuses to get a feel of the school. Once you have a handful of schools in mind, it’s time to think whether you can actually make the cut.
“Can I get in?”
The second part, however, is tricky. Unlike in many countries, the rules of the college application game in the US has never been explicitly set. You see seniors from your school with a 4.0 and 1500+ on the SAT rejected by their safety schools, while those with mediocre academic performance and far-from-impressive extracurricular endeavors put on their newly acquired college apparels.
How Important Are My Scores?
There are in fact many things that can help you chance yourself better. Now, almost every high school junior/senior knows the classic trichotomy of safety schools, match schools, and reach/dream schools, but does not know exactly where to draw the line and categorize these schools appropriately. The first mistake many make is comparing their GPA and test scores with the average or median of a particular school’s admitted students. The truth is, you ought to be looking at the 25th and 75th percentiles, rather than average/median. This will not only give you a better understanding of the middle half of the admitted students, but also avoid miscalculating your chances of getting into this particular school.
Are Scores More Important than Essays?
No, do NOT underestimate how much your personal essay is weighted. That is, you must constantly edit it, and have others help you proofread multiple times—ideally 10 or more—before submitting your final draft. In most cases, a college will receive tens of thousands of applications annually, and the GPA’s and test scores of its applicants will be quite similar. In other words, if you have a 3.7 GPA and 1400 on the SAT, there will very likely be around hundreds of others with similar statistics. Therefore, presenting your unique qualities in your personal essay and other parts of the application becomes extremely crucial.
How to Choose Schools
While it’s relatively easier to identify a reach/dream school, choosing a match school could be troublesome. For instance, I may be reluctant to label a school as a match school because I would feel embarrassed if I’m not admitted. Now, don’t confuse match schools with safety schools: match schools are more flexible and could be somewhere that your chances range from 30% to 70%. As I said, other holistic factors aside, an easy way is to compare your statistics with the aforementioned 25th and 75th percentiles. Also look at the major: if your intended major is particularly competitive/harder to get in, even if the school’s requirements make it seem like a safety, you should place it as a match instead.
The last tip is to LOVE your choice of safety schools. A safety school is where your credentials are a lot stronger than those of an admitted student. Yet, it is by no means saying that you like it less than your match and reach/dream schools. A safety school should still be a school you’d be happy to attend.