The Smartest Strategy for Applying to a Reach School

By: Caroline Koppelman

Most people don’t remember when they learned about Harvard for the first time. Harvard looks and feels like “college.” With its red brick buildings and green quad, Harvard the movie magic, picture perfect image of a college. No matter who you are or what your various connections to the school may be, Harvard is a reach for almost everyone. A reach school is a school where a student falls towards the lower end of the indicated range, or any school that admits less than 20% of applicants who apply. Reach schools are incredibly well known and sought after—think Ivy League+ schools. In order to get in, you need something special. We can’t give you an exact formula for getting into Harvard, but we have developed unique strategies for helping students get to their reach schools. 

Make Sure It Is a Realistic Reach School

First, you have to make sure it’s a realistic reach school. The common app makes it incredibly easy for anyone to apply anywhere, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Reach schools need to be attainable—your scores should be within the indicated range. If they aren’t, you generally have to have an extraordinary circumstance, special project, or an athletic scholarship of some kind. If your grades and scores fall significantly below the range, the school is generally more of an impossibility than a reach, and you’re better off choosing a different school. You need to assume that every other applicant also thinks they are the exception to the rule. More often than not, you’re not the exception to the rule: just because you can apply to Brown doesn’t mean you should. You’ll have the most success applying to a school that is a genuinely good fit even if it is a little out of your range. We like to call these realistic reach schools. A realistic reach school is a school that is still a little out of your range, but is not an impossibility. 

Ivy League schools never fall into this category. Remember that your grades and scores will only get you in the door. After that, it’s all about your extracurriculars, recommendation letters, and essays. Even if you have the qualifying scores, you need to make sure you have enough extracurriculars to be a truly competitive applicant. 

Grades Aren't the Whole Story

Sometimes if your grades are not at the upper end of the range you may still have a shot. For example, if your dream school is Columbia and you have a 32 on the ACT and a 3.9 GPA, but you have incredible extracurriculars and leadership roles, you may have a shot.  The process isn’t always cut and dry, and if you have personal circumstances that could make you the exception to the rule, perhaps you should apply to a highly competitive school.  

Choose IVY+ Schools Wisely

There is always that story about a student who got into all eight Ivy League schools. At a conference a few weeks ago, the dean of admission at Columbia said, “whenever I hear about those students, I know they are terribly lost and misguided.” The Ivy League is a group of eight schools in a sports conference. They are incredibly different schools with unique personalities and strengths. Unlike the stock market, diversifying and applying to more than one Ivy League school does not increase your chances of getting into any one school. If you are going to apply to an Ivy League school, it needs to be the right fit for you. You have to do your research. You can’t apply to Yale because you “just loved it,” or to Princeton because it “looks like the perfect college.” Harvard admitted only 2,037 students last year from a group of more than 39,000 applicants, none of whom wrote about Harvard being an idyllic school. You should only apply to an Ivy League school early decision if you have a real shot and know specifically why you want to attend. 

The Smartest Strategy for Applying to a Reach School

The smartest strategy for applying to a reach school involves a combination of realistic expectations, research, and creativity. 

Once you decide on your realistic reach, research, research, and then research some more. You want to know the school inside and out so that you can tell the school specifically why you would be a good fit. You need to know about the culture, the classes, what you would be doing on a Saturday night, and the opportunities you would take advantage of. If you’re on the cusp with your grades and scores, the admissions committee needs to feel your passion and hunger for the school. They need to know that you’ll make a difference for the school. 

Above all, though, creativity is what will get you in. A reach school is a gamble no matter what, so you’re going to have to stand out. We know you have creative juices, so unleash them in your reach school supplements. Focus on letting your uniqueness shine, being weird, and being funny. If you can make someone laugh, you’ll have an advantage. You will also want to pick a more unique major (not English, Economics, or Political Science). Your common app essay is going to have to stand out from the crowd. Even if you’re qualified, there’s a sea of nameless, faceless qualified applicants all of whom are coming before the red stamp of the admissions committee.  You need to be better than qualified. You need to be extraordinary.

This will require hard work. Not just the grinding hard work of getting great grades and test scores, but the passion and dedication of rising to leadership positions in extracurriculars, and the polish and refinement of crafting compelling essays. So choose your reach wisely and pour your heart and effort into doing everything you can to make yourself an appealing candidate. There’s still no guarantee, but without the requisite effort, it's a waste of your time and the admissions committee’s.