This post is penned by our educational consultant Austin Curwen.

One term used by guidance counselors, independent educational consultants and people who work on all sides of the college admissions process is the importance of having a balanced list.  What exactly does this mean?  In short, each student’s college list should contain a mixture of reach, match and likely schools.  What those terms refer to is a particular student’s admissibility or likelihood of admission.  A good deal of college admissions is a fairly straightforward numbers game.  For students, they have their GPA and any standardized test scores (SATs, ACTs, Aps, etc.).  Colleges will publish the median GPAs and SAT/ACT scores of admitted students.

Naviance does a good job of showing how a particular student will match up with their scatter grams as does Maia with its heat charts.  For our purposes, we see the sweet spot of admissibility of being within 20% of the median.  If a student is below that bandwidth, that school will likely be a reach for that student and their possibility of admission is slim.  The further below they are from the middle band, the less their chance of admission. Students within that middle 40% are considered a match.  Are all of these students admitted… no, but if the student in question has a solid strength of curriculum (i.e. has taken some challenging classes), and a clear slate of interests and activities outside of the classroom, that student will probably be admitted.  Likely schools are where the student is clearly above profile and it is likely they will be admitted. (P.S.  At my last school, colleges with admissions rates in the single digits were considered a reach for all students, including the valedictorian.  Statistically, the odds are very, very thin for all students.)

So why all the hoopla about a balanced list?  Having worked with students on their college process for over a decade, provided students have done their research, visited schools on their list and are happy with the schools on their list, the next step is to make sure that students have choices, with the emphasis on the plural.  I have a handful of former students whose list consisted mostly of schools that would not admit them.  At the end of the process, they were left with one or two options and the entire exercise felt like a failure, albeit one of their own design.

Those students had nurtured two damaging falsehoods during their process that left them feeling less than.  First, they ignored the simple reality about very selective schools and their likelihood of admission and they believed that somehow a good (but not great) student would make it through the maze ahead of thousands of more qualified students.  Second, they bought into the myth that there is a direct correlation between selectivity and the quality of education and more importantly, the right fit.

A balanced list will have a handful of reach schools (2-3), a thoughtful selection of match schools (2-4) rounded out by some likely schools (2-3).  Once all of the acceptances have been sent, this blend should yield most students’ acceptances into more than half of their schools and leave them with serious options.  The other piece to this is being strategic with match and likely schools in terms of adding value to these options looking into things like schools with Honors Programs or Honors Colleges and also schools that grant generous amounts of merit scholarships.  For many students, the prospect of completing college debt-free is an enticing proposition or may leave some funds for graduate school down the road.

So when your counselor starts talking about a balanced list, this is an effort to put that particular student in an advantageous position when decisions arrive, allowing them to have a number of very compelling choices they have to sift through, rather than being ‘stuck’ with one or two options.

Marcie Austin Curwen brings over three decades of experience to Annapolis College Consulting.  A dedicated boarding school faculty member, Austin has spent time at boarding schools in California, the UK and most recently Pennsylvania.  Since 2010, Austin has managed all aspects of college counseling from being a program director, test coordinator, registrar and college counselor.  He is well-versed in financial aid, athletic and arts admissions and international universities.  While Austin has guided his students to some of the most selective schools in the country, what is most satisfying to him is working with and empowering students to find their best fit. To work with Austin, simply send us a message [email protected]