The Ivy Coach Daily

October 7, 2023

What Is A Reach School?

Ivy League college campus with students sitting on green quad
All Ivy League universities should be considered \”reach schools\” to any college applicant (photo credit: Ad Meskens).

There are over 900 universities in America. But high school seniors should not apply to hundreds of universities. There’s a reason The Common Application only allows students to submit applications to 20 schools. In our experience, once students apply to over 20 schools, they haven’t done their homework. Their admissions decisions are likely going to reflect this reality. So how exactly should a college list be formulated? What is a reach school, a match school, and a safety school? Wonder no more!

A Good College List Consists of a Mix of Reach, Match, and Safety Schools

Should a college list consist of all reach schools, all match schools, all safety schools, or a mix of all three? The answer depends on the level of risk a college applicant wishes to take, particularly with the Early strategy. But, in our experience at Ivy Coach, a good college list consists of a mix of all three types of schools. This mix, however, should not be evenly divided into three categories. Instead, a student should only have a few safety schools (if it’s genuinely a safety, why does one need more than two?), a few match schools, and several reach schools. Among the reach schools should be wise choices for Early Decision / Early Action.

What are reach schools, match schools, and safety schools?

What are reach schools?

Even if a student had perfect grades in the most rigorous courses and a perfect SAT or ACT score, any school ranked in the top 25 of the 2023 US News & World Report ranking for “Best National Universities” should be considered a reach school. After all, the vast majority of these schools boast admission rates below 20%, some even below 5%.

All Highly Selective Colleges Are Reaches

Among the Ivy League schools that have thus far reported admissions statistics for the Class of 2027, Harvard University accepted only 3.41% of applicants this past admissions cycle. This same year, Yale University accepted 4.35%, Brown University accepted 5.08%, Dartmouth College accepted 6.07%, and Columbia University accepted 3.93% (University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and Princeton University have yet to report overall admission rates for the Class of 2027).

Harvard Rejects Five Classes Worth of Applicants with Perfect Grades and Scores

Harvard’s Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons, is well known for saying he could fill five incoming Harvard classes worth of students with perfect grades and scores. That’s why it’s not just about excellent grades and great scores in the holistic admissions process — it’s about the high school attended, the extracurriculars, the essays, the interview, the letters of recommendation, and more.

Students Should Compare Their GPA and Test Scores to a College’s Mean GPA and Test Scores

So while we always encourage students to examine the mean GPA and SAT or ACT score at each college to which they’re considering applying, it would be overly simplistic to classify a school as a reach based on grades and test scores alone. For example, a student with a perfect GPA from a high school that doesn’t have strong relationships with elite colleges is not on a level playing field with a student with a perfect GPA from a school that historically sends several of its graduates each year to elite universities. Of course, irrespective of the high school attended, if a student’s GPA and SAT score are well below a college’s mean, that college should be classified as a reach.

But Keep in Mind that the Means are Influenced by Coveted Groups

But, keep in mind, it’s likely still a reach even if the student’s grades and test scores are at or above the mean. Coveted groups influence this mean in admissions, such as recruited athletes, legacy candidates, low-income students, underrepresented minorities, and first-generation college students. Historically, admissions officers are more lenient with the grades and test scores of applicants who fit into one or more of these categories. However, some of this could change with the Supreme Court decision on Affirmative Action on the horizon.

How many reach schools should students apply to?

Students should apply to several reach schools. If a student applies to ten schools, six reach schools are appropriate — including the Early Decision or Early Action choice(s).

What are match schools?

Match schools are colleges where the student’s GPA and SAT or ACT score align with the school’s mean figures. For example, if a school’s mean unweighted GPA is 3.9 and the mean SAT score is 1420, and a student has a 3.85 and 1430, that college is a match for the student. Think of it this way: it likely wouldn’t excite the applicant to get in, but if they haven’t yet earned admission to a reach school, it will allow them to breathe a sigh of relief.

How many match schools should students apply to?

It depends on how many schools to which the student applies, but about 20-30% of a college list should consist of match schools. So if a student applies to ten schools, two to three should be matches.

What are Safety Schools?

Safety schools are colleges where a student’s GPA and SAT or ACT score are well above the school’s mean figures. For example, if a college’s mean unweighted GPA is 3.5 and mean ACT score is 30, and the student has a 3.9 GPA and a 34 ACT, that should be considered a safe bet. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can phone in their application or write something alarming, like a predilection for pyromania. If a student expressed as much, the college should no longer be considered a safety. In short, if an applicant earns admission to a safety school, their heart-rate likely won’t skip a beat.

How many safety schools should students apply to?

Again, it depends on how many colleges to which the student applies. If a student applies to ten colleges, two safety schools are appropriate.

Why So Many Students Have Poorly Curated College Lists

Most students applying to America’s elite colleges fit neatly into one of two categories: they either have too much confidence or not enough confidence. It’s rare when we come across a student who — based on their college list — has just the right amount of confidence.

For those students with too much confidence, they tend to apply to impossible dreams, particularly in the Early Action/Early Decision round. Rarely do they earn admission. It’s a mistake they can’t correct because a student only has one Early Action/Early Decision game plan to execute. The Early card should be played wisely by applying to a reach school but not an impossible reach.

For those students with too little confidence, they should not play it safe in the Early Action/Early Decision round. Applying to a safety school or even a match school makes no sense. Students should always take some chance in the Early Action/Early Decision round when the odds are more in students favor. It doesn’t mean they should apply to an impossible reach, but they should apply to a reach school.

College List Case Example

Arjun from TJ

Arjun, from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, has a 3.6 GPA in the most rigorous coursework his high school offers and a 1580 SAT. He also has 11 5s on AP exams. His dream is to attend Yale.

Let’s assume we at Ivy Coach worked with Arjun, so we know he has wow extracurriculars, essays, letters of recommendation, and overall applications. Is Yale possible in the Early Action round for this Indian American applicant — an overrepresented minority in elite college admissions — despite his relatively low GPA compared to Yale’s mean? Yes, assuming all of the above, Yale would be a reach school but not an impossible reach because admissions officers know TJ well and they know how hard TJ can be. They will especially love Arjun’s top AP scores. That said, Arjun comes across as a bit lazy since he’s very smart with those top test scores, so he likely could have secured better grades with more effort.

Because Arjun applied to so many schools in the Early round, it is improbable that he will need to apply to any schools other than reaches in the Regular Decision round. After all, if he doesn’t get into Yale Early Action in the worst-case scenario, he would still likely get into multiple top public universities by mid-December.

College / UniversityReach / Match / Safety
Yale University (Early Action)Reach
University of Michigan (Early Action)Reach
University of Virginia (Early Action)Match (in-state)
Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Early ActionSafety
University of California (Priority Deadline)Reach, Match, & Safety (Berkeley and UCLA are reaches, the other UC schools are either matches or safeties)
Cornell UniversityReach
Dartmouth CollegeReach
Duke UniversityReach
University of PennsylvaniaReach
Washington University in St. LouisReach

Reach School FAQs

How can I compare my numbers to a college’s mean if I don’t have test scores?

You can’t. The mean SAT or ACT score that a college publishes applies to applicants who choose to submit test scores. Since most elite colleges are test-optional now, except for schools like MIT and Georgetown, your list becomes more of a guessing game. But all else being equal, a student with excellent test scores will always enjoy an advantage over a student with no test scores under a college’s test-optional admissions policy.

How can I gauge my high school’s relationship with a college?

Mine the data. If your school publishes a matriculation list, go through that list for each of the last several years. Is Harvard not on the list? Do many students attend MIT each year? You’ll never know why a high school doesn’t have a strong relationship with a specific college, but the numbers tell the story.

Can my daughter, who has a 4.3 weighted GPA and a 1570 SAT, get into Harvard?

No one can answer this question without context. Knowing which high school your daughter attends, the rigor of her coursework, extracurriculars, and more is necessary.

Is there an advantage for my son to apply to a bunch of non-restrictive Early Action schools in addition to his Early Decision school?

Absolutely! Take advantage of the various schools’ Early Action/Early Decision policies. Suppose a student earns admission to a match school in the Early round. In that case, even if the student is deferred or denied at their reach Early Decision school, they can take the safety schools off the list for Regular Decision and instead include more reaches.

At Ivy Coach, do so many of your students earn admission to their dream schools because you push down their school choices?

No, we help students get into reach schools. Our company’s name is Ivy Coach. As such, families tend to come to us to help their children earn admission to highly selective universities. So the vast majority of college applications we work on with students are, naturally, to reach schools. Besides, parents wouldn’t pay our fees to help their children earn admission to safety schools.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with Students Getting Into Reach Schools

Putting together a college list takes much more expertise than simply comparing your child’s GPA and SAT or ACT score with the college’s mean GPA and mean SAT or ACT score. Where your child attends high school, the rigor of their coursework, and their demographics matter. Their Early Action/Early Decision strategy matters. And that’s where we at Ivy Coach come in as we help our students formulate college lists that give them the best chance to earn admission to the most competitive college possible. Reach out to us today by scheduling a free college admissions consultation to learn more about Ivy Coach’s services.

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