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Finding a Likely School You Love

by Will Geiger, on Apr 4, 2019 12:00:00 PM

Building a successful college list is all about managing risk. When thinking about your college list, it is natural to focus on the most competitive schools. These are also the schools that are the riskiest. Let’s look at some admissions data from Princeton University that breaks down acceptance rate by SAT scores:


 Source: Princeton University

The biggest takeaway is that even if you are a stellar test taker, you only have a minuscule chance of being admitted to Princeton; students who have SAT scores of 1500+ are only admitted at an 8% rate. There are other factors that go into admissions decisions, but no matter how you slice it, the odds are stacked against you at the most selective colleges.

“Likely” schools are important because they are less risky and have more predictable admissions processes. Having some “sure things” is a critical part of success in the admissions process. As a college counselor, I have seen it all and know that there are no guarantees for the “reaches” or even “targets” on your college list (even if you have stellar credentials). Shoot for the stars, yes, but having a backup plan is smart and will lead to less stress.

Finding a “safe” or “likely” school that you really love can be difficult. Luckily, there are thousands of degree-granting institutions in the world. If you do your research, you can find several that are less risky, but still a great fit for you.

Here are a few things to take into consideration as you search for likely schools that you love.


If all of your likely schools are expensive, private institutions that will place a burden on you and your family, then they are not true safeties. As a college counselor, I would always scratch my head when students were intent on applying to these pricey colleges that are not known for generous financial aid. College is a launching pad for your entire life and it is critical that you don’t saddle yourself with unnecessary debt.

This is why we recommend that you always complete the Net Price Calculator (which can be found on the individual college’s website). Additionally, some schools may offer guaranteed merit scholarships for students who meet certain criteria. For example, check out this tool for scholarships at Arizona State University.

Honors Colleges and Extras

Many public institutions offer honors colleges, special research programs, and other opportunities to entice strong students. Don’t forget about these options. I remember working with Rob, a student who chose the University of Connecticut’s honors program over more selective alternatives. UConn Honors was affordable (they actually gave him an additional scholarship) and gave him a smaller community-academic experience in the context of a large state university with lots of resources. This was a great fit for Rob and he would be able to graduate debt-free!

Focus on the metrics that matter--not the name

School A

  • $89,200 average salary after attending
  • 82% of students graduate within six years
  • 94% of students return after freshman year
  • $35,309 average net cost

School B

  • $77,200 average salary after attending
  • 94% of students graduate with six years
  • 97% of students return after freshman year
  • $30,498 average net cost

These colleges seem pretty similar, right?

It turns out that School A has an acceptance rate that is 3x higher than School B, so it is much less selective. It may surprise you that School B is Cornell University, a well-known, Ivy League institution and School B is Stevens Institute of Technology, a lesser known institution in Hoboken, NJ. My major point with this example is there are some less selective schools that are excellent options.

Bottom Line

Your likely school does not have to be your first-choice school, but it is critical to put time into selecting best-fit options that are more “predictable.” Selecting some awesome, likely schools will take some time, but will make your admissions process more successful and less stressful!

Topics:college admission