Reach, Target, and Safety Colleges: Crafting a College List

Reach, Target, and Safety Colleges: Crafting a College List

Crafting a college list can be some of the most nerve-wracking decisions in the entire college application process. With so many decisions stemming from this choice, your college list should be something that you start thinking about early and adapting as you go through high school. As Admissions Consultants with years of experience helping Hong Kong students get into their dream schools, we help our students craft carefully curated college lists with a balanced mix of Reaches, Targets, and Safeties.

But first, let’s take a look at how we define these categories.

Reach universities

These are universities that you are not likely to get into – but that doesn’t mean that they should be universities that are out of your league! Any university that can be considered a Reach for you should still have a viable pathway to acceptance for you. Your scores would typically be in the top 40-75% of their published stats (e.g. SAT / ACT and GPA). A common mistake that we see students make in Hong Kong is choosing what they think are Reach schools, when in fact those schools may be *out* of their reach. Remember that applications to Reaches should not be wild shots in the dark – you need to put in the effort to make sure that Reaches stay within Reach, and not just hope to rely on blind luck. Remember that a 5% acceptance rate doesn’t mean a 5% chance of getting in. If you don’t put in the work on your Reach school applications, including their supplement essays, your chance might just drop to 0%. 

Some universities can be considered Reaches for any student who applies, particularly the Ivy Plus schools such as Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and Stanford. These universities usually have acceptance rates around 5% and attract the strongest students in the world, which means that nobody should ever be confident about getting into these universities, unless their family owns a building on campus, or they’ve been recruited for athletics and received a Likely Letter from a coach.  

  • Your scores should be in the top 40-75% (lower quartile and above)
  • Your chances of getting in are likely only 10-20%, meaning you’re more than likely going to be rejected
  • These universities are good candidates for your one Early Decision choice

Target universities

Target universities are universities that you have a pretty good chance of getting into. Usually, you should have scores in the in top 25-50% of their published stats, but remember that there are still students with higher scores than that who get rejected, and students with lower scores that still get accepted – with U.S. universities using holistic admissions, it’s never just one factor that will get a student accepted. 

Just because a Target university is “easier” than a Reach doesn’t mean you have to like it less though! In a good college list, Target universities should share many characteristics with your Reach schools – don’t be afraid of having a Target be your dream school. 

  • Your scores should be within their top 25-50% (average and above)
  • Your chances of getting in will be around 50/50 – you’ll probably get into a few of your Targets, but not all of them.
  • Target schools will usually share many of the same qualities as your Reach schools in a good college list

Safety universities

My number one tip for students making a college list: make sure your Safeties are actually Safeties! These are universities that you should be absolutely confident about getting in, even taking into account the vagaries of holistic admissions. Typically, your scores should be within the top 10% of their published stats, and you should not have any potentially “rejectable” gaps within your application profile. It’s always a good idea to think like an admissions officer and critically look at your own profile – are there any reasons why you *might* be rejected? Are you submitting minimum effort essays, or perhaps you’re finishing the application at the last minute? If so, that university you’re looking at might no longer be a Safety. 

But it’s also important to remember that Safety universities should also be universities that you are still happy to go attend. There may be some compromises at Safeties compared to your Reach and Target schools, but your Safeties should still have certain benefits that you appreciate. Perhaps it’s a lower overall price tag. Or maybe that Safety has specific programs or opportunities like Co-Op internships or transfer agreements. Perhaps your Safety has great employability, or a location that you really like. While everything might not be perfect, you should still be able to find something you like about every college on your list, including your Safeties. 

  • Your scores should be in the top 10% of their stats
  • You should have at least a 90% chance of getting in – some common Safety universities even have guaranteed admissions criteria
  • Identify specific benefits of going to your Safeties to make sure they are still options you wouldn’t mind attending

Making the most of your limited university choices

With most high schools allowing students to apply for 8-10 universities on average, making sure that you have a balanced set of universities is critical. Let’s take a look at some strategies that you can use to make your college list the best it can be.

Early Decision

Many top universities have an Early Decision application option, a binding agreement in which you commit to attending a university if you are accepted. This has a number of advantages: as a student, you can clearly highlight your interest in a university by binding yourself to them if accepted; for the university, they can more easily secure a part of their student body early. This makes Early Decision a no-brainer choice if you have a dream school. It can still be a good choice if you don’t have one, but be mindful of the commitments you make when ED-ing to a school!

Early Action

Because of the non-binding nature of Early Action, even if you’re accepted, you won’t need to decide whether you will attend that university until after you’ve gotten all your admissions decisions. Knowing that you’ve already gotten into a university even before the Regular Decision deadline will reduce the stress of the college application process a lot, making this a great choice for almost any student. But one of the biggest advantages of Early Action is the ability to potentially make changes to your college list depending on what happens in the Early round – if you’ve gotten accepted a great EA option, perhaps you can drop some colleges from your list and focus on your Reaches instead; or alternatively, if you don’t get accepted to your EA choices, that might give you an opportunity to reflect upon and improve on your application before the Regular round.

Other countries

In Hong Kong, many of our students consider applying to universities in multiple countries. With most university systems being more transparent and grades-focused, this can mean that admissions to some universities in the UK and Hong Kong can be more reliable, which can impact the rest of your college list. Many of our students at Quantum Prep can aggressively focus on their U.S. Reaches since they have Targets and Safeties in hand from other countries. College lists aren’t limited to just the U.S. – and that means with proper planning, you can have plenty of options you like for college. 

Quantum Prep is an education consultancy that focuses on placing their students at the best colleges or universities. We boast of diverse results. In addition to the traditional rap sheet of prestigious university acceptances, our consultants like to highlight the different paths they have sent students on. All of our students are different; we are proud of our one-on-one tailored approach towards university counselling. Contact us for a complimentary 30-minute initial meeting, where you can get tailored individualized advice on how to put your best foot forward. Read our reviews to see what our clients think of us.

By Conrad Yu, Director of Development

Published 17-06-2021

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