Is My College List Too Top-Heavy With Reach Schools?

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I'm a high school senior in Illinois. My parents and my counselor both said my college list is top heavy and that I need more safeties and matches. I have 11 reaches (all of the ivies, plus MIT, Stanford and Caltech) plus 3 matches (Duke, Northwestern and Vanderbilt) and 2 safeties (University of Illinois and Purdue). I think in a normal year that list of reaches might be excessive but this year since we don't know how things will work, I think it's fair to go for it with my 11 reaches. They said if you think this is a good idea, they will pay for all of the applications. What do you think?

"The Dean" finds your college list even MORE top-heavy with reaches than you suspect. Duke, Northwestern and Vanderbilt should be considered "reach" schools for pretty much everyone — except perhaps for recruited quarterbacks or point guards with perfect grades and test scores. ;-) Moreover, "intention to enroll" is a criterion that most colleges use in the selection process —whether admission folks concede this or not — and it's going to be tough for you to demonstrate true love to so many varied colleges.

It seems to me that prestige could be at the top of your priority list (why else would someone aim for all eight Ivies ... definitely disparate places) yet your odds of landing at one of your safeties could be high. (I can't come close to saying this responsibly without knowing a lot more about you. But from working with many students in your shoes over many eons, I've seen countless highly qualified candidates turned away each year from Ivies and their ilk.)

So my advice to you is to pare down your list of reach schools (e.g, think about which Ivies are really the best fits for you and eliminate the ones that aren't). Also, ask yourself how your profile will truly set you apart from all of your competitor candidates. Top grades in the toughest courses (and even sky-high test scores in this test-optional era) are definitely not enough. So what is it about your extracurricular accomplishments or your background that will make your application special? If you can't come up with any rock-solid answers, then it's likely that you're way over-reaching, and even if you do feel you stand out, you need to ask yourself if you'd be fine enrolling at Illinois or Purdue. If you're not so sure about that, then it's time to add some true matches to the roster.

Admission to hyper-competitive colleges — like most of the ones on your list — can be unpredictable even in so-called "normal" times. But in the COVID-19 era, we all should expect even more uncertainty than usual, as admission committees move away from test scores as a key factor in their decisions and put their emphasis elsewhere. So it's not unreasonable for college lists to be a tad longer than usual in light of this uncertainty. But even so, these lists still need to be balanced. And yours is not.

Good luck as you continue to navigate the admissions maze.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at

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