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Understanding your College Admissions Chances: How to Create a Balanced School List

Crafting a well-balanced college list is a crucial step in the college application journey. Once you’ve compiled 10-20 colleges you’re interested in researching further, the next step is to determine whether they are a safety, match, reach, or long shot for your specific profile. Skewing your college list too long shot-heavy puts your admissions chances at risk. Keeping the list too “safe” may limit opportunities and experiences for a student and underestimate the strength of their profile. 

A balanced college list ensures that students have a range of options, from long shot and reach schools that challenge and inspire them to safety and match schools where acceptance is more likely. 

Categorizing Schools

Many factors impact your chances of admission—several of which we’ll discuss below—but a great place to start categorizing schools is by researching acceptance rates and assessing your SAT/ACT scores in comparison to the score ranges of previously admitted students.

Long shot

  • Your test scores fall in the bottom 25% of admitted students 

  • Any college or program with a less than 10% admission rate

* Ivies and BS/MD programs are long shots for all students due to the level of competition among qualified applicants


  • Your scores fall in the middle 50% of admitted students

  • You have a realistic chance at being admitted; however, it will be difficult to gain acceptance since your stats are similar to other students

  • The strength of your resume, other areas of your profile, and your essays can improve your chances by demonstrating your ability to contribute to campus beyond academics


  • Your scores fall in the top 25% of admitted students

  • Your profile is above those of admitted students both in hard and soft metrics (GPA, resume, recommendations, essays, etc.)


  • Your scores fall above the top 25% of admitted students; your profile exceeds the qualifications of a typically enrolled-student

  • You meet the requirements for auto-admittance (this is often for the school not a specific major or honors program

  • You are most likely, if not guaranteed, admission

As you can see, acceptance rate and SAT/ACT score (and GPA/rank for auto-admission), is the first step in determining how to label your chances at a school. However, you also want to consider how the following factors may shift your chances:

Major Selection: Make sure you are strategically choosing your first- and second-choice majors!

  • Although a school may be a match for you otherwise, based on a specific program’s popularity, this could shift the school to a reach for you. For example, University of Washington-Seattle’s overall acceptance rate is 46% (for non-residents), but their acceptance rate for non-resident CS/CE applicants is only 2%

  • You may be auto-admit for UT Austin, but you are not auto-admit to your major of choice. Your essays and profile will have to win you a spot in your chosen major. If you are applying as a Business, Engineering, or CS major, UT Austin is NOT a safety 

Transcript & High School Environment

  • Do you go to a competitive high school? 

  • Have you chosen the most challenging classes for yourself each year and taken advanced coursework relevant to your major?

  • Does your GPA reflect your performance in and contribution to your classes?

Strength of Resume

  • Do you have activities that show sustained and meaningful interest in your field of study?

  • Does your resume show leadership and genuine concern for your community?

  • Can you report awards or distinctions that demonstrate your academic and personal achievement?

Strength of Recommendations

  • Do you have teachers, counselors, mentors, etc. who will personally attest to your strengths, potential, and character through recommendations?

Crafting a Balanced College List the B2A Way 

B2A recommends that you have a balanced list of ~10 colleges: 2 safeties, 2 matches, 4 reaches, and 2 long shots

  • Safety and match schools can be great options, especially because they usually offer more perks like more financial aid and scholarships, closer professor relationships, and access to honors programs, independent research, and more—which are alluring to graduate programs

  • Colleges also want to pick students whose profiles reflect their values because they care about their yield (the % of students they accept who decide to enroll), so do not choose schools based solely on rank

  • When working on creating a balanced list, students should focus on identifying campuses that have the programs and resources to meet their career goals and that they can see themselves attending

Categorizing schools is difficult to do and that’s why we have trained B2A Counselors to help you! 

For personalized recommendations and an individualized college admissions strategy, reach out to B2A to schedule a 1:1 meeting. B2A also offers College Admissions Service (CAS) hours for application assistance and the Gateway Program, an all-inclusive college admissions counseling program designed to help students complete 5 applications.


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