How Many Colleges Should be on Your Teen's List?

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So many colleges to research, so many campuses to explore—where to start? Finding the right universities that align with your teen’s goals and are within reach is a balance. With this guide, you’ll be on your way to creating a great list of colleges that maximize your student’s options and chances of success. 

In this post, we’ll walk through the three types of colleges your teen will want to bear in mind: safety schools, target schools, and reach schools.

To determine which is which, you’ll need to identify some important elements of your teen’s applicant profile. Here are some of the factors to consider (as you can see, colleges are looking for more than grades).

  • GPA
  • SAT®, AP®, and/or ACT® scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Extracurricular activities

Your teen’s teachers and guidance counselors are excellent resources in weighing each factor to create the perfect list. As you do your research, many colleges will publish information about its most recent incoming first-year class, which will serve as a useful guide. 

For the record: numbers aren’t everything when it comes to applying for college. There are plenty of ways to boost your teen’s college application. From high school leadership activities to challenging AP® classes and impressive extracurriculars, talk with your senior or rising senior high school student about the accomplishments they can highlight. 

However, for the purposes of this post, our advice aligns with a data-driven approach to cultivating a realistic list of colleges for your teen to apply to. Many (if not most) guidance counselors and admissions experts will use data at least as a starting point for this process, and so will we!

What’s the best way to make a list of schools?

When you compare your student’s application to each college’s first-year class data, you’ll get a good idea of whether the school is one your student is easily qualified for, is right on target with their application data, or might be a challenge to get into. 

Factors like tuition cost, type of college campus, scholarship opportunities, and specialized programs are also important to consider at this stage. If you’re not sure where to get started, this free tool from the U.S. World News Report can help narrow your search.

Once you have developed a first draft list with your student (and ideally with their guidance counselor’s help), it’s time to narrow down the right number of colleges. 

And how many is that, exactly?

Experts recommend that students apply to at least two or three safety schools (more on this later). In total, between five and ten total applications is generally recommended, and the list should comprise mostly of target schools with two or three reach schools.

OK —which is which? 

It should go without saying that every teen’s list of colleges will be different. Make sure to craft your list with your student’s specific interests, needs, and profile in mind. Let’s take a look at how to distinguish between each type of university that should be on their list! 

Safety Schools

If your student exceeds the typical applicant profile of a college, it might make a fitting “safety school.” That means your student’s GPA and or standardized test scores are above average for the typical applicant to that particular university. Of course, just because getting accepted might be less of a challenge, these colleges should still be ones your student could happily attend.

According to one admissions expert, "A student can judge whether a school is a safety school for them by comparing their grades and test scores to the school's admissions statistics for the average first-year student. If a prospective student's academic credentials are well above this range, then they can consider the school a safety school.”

The selectivity of the college should also be lower than other schools on your student’s list. Of course, the fact that these colleges are most likely a safe bet for your student doesn’t mean that admission is guaranteed. That’s why applying to more than one safety school is the best course of action. 

Target Schools

If your student’s GPA, test scores, and other admissions criteria are well within the typical range for recently admitted students, it’s probably a reasonable “target” school. 

For example, if your student scored a 1950 on their SAT® and their weighted GPA is a 3.5, their target schools’ most recent first-year classes will reflect similar data. Especially if your student’s numbers are on the higher end of the range of the data, they are useful indicators of a target school. 

Having between three and five of this type of college on your teen’s list is a good way to maximize their odds of being accepted to at least one. 

Reach Schools

They are what they sound like! “Reach” schools will be a stretch for students to be accepted to; a challenge. These colleges’ acceptance rates are likely more competitive than the rest of the colleges on your teen’s list, and data points like average GPA and test score will be higher than your student’s profile.  

If a certain college is a reach for your student but remains their top choice, it’s a good idea to research what they can do to help their chances. Taking extra steps like applying early decision or interviewing with a professor or alum might be just the thing to boost their application in a sea of qualified prospective students. 

Financial aid, application fees, and scholarships 

When working with your teen on their college applications, cost is an essential consideration. Plus, application fees can range from $20-$80, so make sure to factor those costs into your budget and research application fee waivers if they’re available. 

Keep in mind that colleges that appear on your student’s “safety school” list might make excellent candidates for scholarship applications and merit-based aid. We recommend working with your student to incorporate these opportunities into their research. 

Then, continue using resources like the FAFSA to inform your decision-making and assess how much need-based aid your student might qualify for. 

More college-bound resources for parents and teens

The college application process can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! With the right resources in hand, you’ll be able to tackle each component at a manageable pace. 

From writing a winning admissions essay to asking the right questions on a campus tour, we’ve you covered. 

A photo of Virginia

Virginia started with iD Tech at the University of Denver in 2015 and has loved every minute since then! A former teacher by trade, she has a master's in education and loves working to embolden the next generation through STEM. Outside the office, you can usually find her reading a good book, struggling on a yoga mat, or exploring the Rocky Mountains.