Quit Playing Games with My Heart: How to Choose Your Target Schools, feat. Wisdom from the Backstreet Boys

To state the obvious, we often think of target schools as being that beautiful sweet spot between so-called “reaches” and “safeties.” While target schools are a crucial component towards achieving matriculation success, they’re a little more semi-sweet than totally milk chocolate.  In fact, what you need to know is that target schools are not a guarantee. At all. While the whole college process can, at times, feel like nothing but a heartache, we’ve come up with a strategy to help you develop your target list.

Don’t Be Two Worlds Apart

When identifying a target school, you should consider focusing on schools for which your scores fall into the 50th percentile of accepted students.  For our average student, this is going to be a mid-tier school, like the University of Michigan.

Eons ago, back when CDs were a thing and kids still knew who Nick Carter was, applying to target schools was pretty easy.  Nowadays, with every passing year, it is only getting harder and harder to get in. While we hate playing games with your heart, we do want our students to manage their expectations. So, to be clear, do not expect to get into your target schools—especially if your target school has under a 30% acceptance rate.

The One Desire Is a Sham

So, how should you narrow down that list of target schools in which you might not even get accepted? First of all, we recommend against picking a school just because it’s highly ranked. Approach this process like someone who is picky about the kind of music they listen to. If you don’t like brass, you’re not going to buy the latest Trombone Shorty LP just because it’s supposed to be great. Similarly, if you’re introverted, Michigan is not for you, even though it is a great school.

One of our students (Lily) really wanted to go to Vanderbilt. She had great scores, very solid grades, and had done additional research on the Classics as a hobby. She was a desirable, well-rounded candidate to anyone who was paying attention. But Lily wasn’t super social. She grew up in the northeast, was close to her parents, and wanted to stay close by. When we met Lily, we asked her why she had zeroed in on Vanderbilt so quickly. Simply put, she had heard it was a respected school. After a lot of talking and some soul-searching, Lily decided that, although she hadn’t initially thought of it as the kind of well-renowned university she always thought she should attend, Vassar was a better choice for her.

Instead of focusing on the singular factor of rank, we recommend focusing on the environment of a place and the other factors that would make you want to live at a university for four years. Are you into the idea of a rural setting or a city? Do you want a big school or a small school? Are you thinking of participating in Greek life? Are sports a part of your weekend vibe? Would you rather be able to take a train home, or are you okay flying several hours? Like dating, you should figure out your likes and dislikes and then say, “hey. I want it that way.”

Surrender Your Heart, Body, and Soul…and Test Scores  

Once you hone in on your list of target schools, it’s time to face the music and see if you’re actually a good fit. It’s easy to say that you don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you did, as long as the admissions committee lets you in, but the fact of the matter is, they are going to care about who YOU are. So, even if you’re original and you’re the only one, your test scores still matter. Compare your test scores to each school’s average and see if you make the cut.

Four Fast Rules:

  • Choose four to five target schools

Enough said.

  • Diversify your type of targets

While we do recommend evaluating what kind of environment is ideal for you, you could also be happy in multiple types of environments. If it works for you, apply to both small and large schools. A lot happens in the time between when you apply and when you actually matriculate. If you’re on the fence about going to a school with no sports teams, consider that in a few months, you might not care about having sports at all. Give yourself the option.

  • If there’s one you really love, apply early decision

We know it can feel like you’re leaving your life in their hands, but just take the leap.

  • Don’t be surprised if you get rejected.

Colleges care about yield rates. A school knows based on your grades and scores whether or not they are your target, your reach, or your safety. So, if they are a target or a safety for you, they may actually defer or waitlist you and instead, offer that spot to someone with slightly worse grades or schools. If you get deferred, don’t panic. The school probably just wants to see a deferral letter.  


Stuck on crafting your list of target schools? Call us. We offer a personalized program to help our students apply to the perfect schools for them.