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Image from Pexels

Two years ago, in the winter of 2012, I shut my eyes and hit “Submit” on my final Common App supplement. I was done with all of my fourteen—yes, fourteen—college applications, and I felt like I could take on the world. The elation was quickly overtaken, however, by a lasting feeling of nervousness in the pit of my stomach. A feeling that I knew would only subside when I was to receive what would, hopefully, be my first acceptance in a few weeks’ time.

Little did I know that I had made the application and decision process much harder on myself than was necessary. Out of my fourteen schools, I had one safety. One. Let that sink in. Only one of fourteen schools that I was pretty certain I had a good shot at getting a big, shiny envelope from. Out of the remaining thirteen, I believe that about four were “target” schools whose criteria I met comfortably. The rest—nine universities—fell into another category.

The dreaded reach school.

I’d probably compare my desire of being accepted to at least one of these nine schools to that of a horse reaching out for a dangling carrot. I kept imagining what my reaction would be provided that I was to receive an acceptance from one of these prestigious institutions. Tears, excited laughter, hyperventilation. The dream was real, and it couldn’t escape me. But, I knew that this prospect was, for most of the nine schools, just that. A dream.

We can view applying to numerous reach schools—schools that a student may apply to regardless of possessing an academic profile lower than that institution’s average—in two ways: a positive way, in which students are taking a good ol’ fashioned chance by applying, or a negative way, in which they may very well be unrealistically aiming too high. What, then, are the prospective students of this world to do?

Reach schools can certainly be long shots, but still bear the possibility of acceptance. I, when applying, was aware of these criteria; however, in hindsight, I took this “possibility” a bit too seriously. If I had the chance to apply to college all over again—a chance that, judging by my undying love for my current university, Villanova, would probably be futile—I would cut down this list of nine to around four or five. My parents’ mentality was one that encouraged applying to as many schools as I’d wanted, taking this notion of a complete risk to heart. In reality, though, should students be relying more so on something that could maybe happen rather than something that could almost definitely happen?

College Board recommends that prospective students apply to anywhere from five to eight schools, although there is no “magic number” applicable to everyone. When describing reach school applications, however, it dictates that only one or two be present on a student’s list. I, clearly, did not abide by this rule, and, eventually, was only accepted to one of the very top tier institutions that I applied to. Had I applied to only one or two reaches, my journey may have been much smoother. Fewer reach schools, therefore, can very well translate to a student being more satisfied at the outcome of his or her application process.

“There may be 20 colleges you want to attend, or you could have your heart set on just one. When you are applying to college, be practical,” writes college prep expert Maura Kastberg. “There are no guarantees that you will be accepted to the school you desire, but you should have a good idea about your chances of admission to each school.” Kastberg’s advice is certainly worth abiding by. Risks are risks, and if you consider yourself a risk-taker, go for it. Just be sure to back up your risks—however severe they may be—with wise choices. What you’ll want in the end is an option, after all. If you find yourself hesitant to apply to too many of what could be shots in the dark, then that’s another route to follow.

Think of it this way: two students with equal credentials are in the midst of their application process. Applicant A has a Common App queue with the following: Two safety schools, two target schools (“best fits”), and two reach schools. Applicant B’s lineup features two safety schools, three target schools, and four reach schools. So long as both applicants possess an apt amount of safety and target schools, the number of reaches may be inconsequential, depending on their difficulty and the disparity between the students’ credentials and the schools’ requirements.
Be smart, and be sure that a balance exists between these three types of colleges on your finalized list of applications. Chances are always exciting, especially when they pay off—however, be sure that a back-up plan is in place.

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