If you think picking the best BBQ sauce to put on tonight’s dinner is a hard choice, consider the magnitude of stress associated with a decision process where you are presented with over 4,000 choices from which you must narrow your selection down to under ten. Oh, and I forgot to mention that a poor decision could end up costing you and your family thousands of dollars. No stage in life will feel more overwhelming (perhaps with the exception of throwing an elaborate wedding) than the demanding task of narrowing your college search.
Most guidance counselors would agree that it is critical to apply to more than one or two schools. This holds true even if you’ve been given an “early action” acceptance to your first-choice school, in which you’re guaranteed admission (although you are under no obligation to accept the offer). Let’s say that you’ve been accepted to another school offering a much more appealing financial aid package in the form of institutional grants and scholarships. Now that you have other offers in hand, you’re in a better position to haggle with your first-choice school, who may be willing to match a rival school’s package. (Caution: don’t try to bluff a school’s Financial Aid Office (FAO) by reading them offers that don’t exist.)
If you know, based on your expected family contribution, that you will qualify for some type of financial aid, you will most definitely want to broaden your options by applying to at least eight different schools, with a minimum of one falling into the three primary categories: safety schools, target schools, and reach schools.
If you are unsure where you rank in comparison to competing applicants, you will usually be able to find the median SAT scores and class rankings of the previous year’s freshman class on the prospective college’s website. Also, when considering which colleges to apply for, I recommend using Tuition Tracker, which compiles data on nearly every college in the country including acceptance rates, percentage of low income students, and average loan amounts for incoming freshmen.
1. Safety School
A safety school is one for which you are fairly certain you will be accepted. Typically, you will know your chances are fairly good if you rank in the top 25% of applicants based on the students admitted the previous year. For most, this is as far as the definition of a safety school goes, but I will venture to add a few a salient points to the matter. In addition to having a high probability of acceptance, this safety school should also be affordable enough for you and your family even if you receive no financial aid at all. It would do no good if you accepted, only to discover a few months later that the net cost is way above what you can afford. And the last point may be a bit obvious, but it’s important nevertheless: pick a safety school that you would actually want to attend if given the opportunity.
2. Target School
A target school is one for which you have just as good a chance as being admitted as would being denied. Essentially, you would rank between 40%-70% of the applicant pool.
3. Reach school
A reach school, in which you rank in the bottom 40%, is an unlikely option, but not necessarily off the table. These reach schools, which include both the Ivy League schools and the “Public Ivies” (University of California—Berkley, University of Michigan, University of Texas—Austin, etc.) are basically reach schools for everyone, so you shouldn’t rule them out. There could be certain factors Financial Aid Officers are looking for when putting together an offer or rejection notice other than academic standing. Perhaps they are looking for a certain demographic or special talent that you meet? If accepted, you may receive an aid package that is more affordable than a public in-state school depending on your financial need.
Ultimately, your final decision will boil down to two things: the aid package being offered (i.e. can you afford it?) and the reputation of the school for the program that you are applying for. Ideally, the more schools you apply to, the greater the chances of receiving an acceptance for a school that is both affordable (relatively speaking) and highly regarded.
Rule of Thumb
When weighing college choices, consider Preferential Packages over Pedigree.
In other words, if choosing a good public university will save your family thousands of dollars over attending an Ivy League or “Public Ivy” school, you’re better off pocketing the savings and attending the more affordable school.
What are your thoughts? Would you take the risk of applying to only one or two schools? How much more would you be willing to pay for a reputable institution?