What constitutes reaches, matches, and safeties

These days, with so many TO kids applying to selective schools – increasing the number of applications at many selective schools – I think it’s appropriate to increase the perceived selectivity level of these schools, versus how we thought of them just a few years ago.

There was a time when I would have said that for a top applicant – 3.9+/1560+ with great LORs and ECs – schools like BC, U of Rochester, and Wake Forest could be considered matches or high matches. I think that would be foolish in the current climate.

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I don’t disagree, I just look at it a bit differently. Those schools are still matches. A student that gets rejected from University of Rochester with a 3.9, 1560, lots of APs, etc… They wouldn’t have gotten in if only their GPA was 3.95/1580.
A match, to me, means that the student’s stats match the averaged admitted applicant.
It’s just that those schools are increasingly playing yield games, given the increased number of applications and ever increasing attempts to manipulate rankings.
So that 3.9/1560 student that got rejected from BC… Ironically, they might have gotten in if only their stats were WORSE. (going to yield rate, BC knows that, for example, if they offer acceptance to a 3.7/1400 student, that student very often accepts admission, but when they offer acceptance to a 3.9/1560, that student often rejects the admission offer).

While acceptance rates have gone way down, the schools haven’t necessarily become more selective in terms of demanding higher achievers. They are just protecting their yield rates.

I almost feel we should look at match/reach based on, “what would happen if applying early decision.”
Someone with 3.9/1560/etc would have a very good chance of acceptance at those 3 schools, early decision. Thus, I still consider them matches. (But 3.9/1560 would still leave Harvard as a reach in early decision)

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To me, it’s more than just if the stats match. There are plenty of kids who fall within the stats at HYPSM but no one would call them a match because the acceptance rates are so low. I think you need to look at both stats and overall acceptance rate for your child’s intended major (and if applying to a public flagship the rates for in state and OOS) when determining how to categorize a college list.

I’d go further to say that there is zero harm in categorizing schools conservatively to better manage expectations and potential disappointment. It’s much worse emotionally to be over confident.

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Or we need a whole new category. I agree that HYPSM aren’t really a “match” for anyone. But it’s also inaccurate to simply say “reach for everyone.”
There is a major difference between 4.0/1600/10 APs, and 3.5/1300/2 APs when applying to HYPSM. For the second student, it would be a true reach. For the first student, they have a realistic shot of admission, though acceptance rate would remain low.
Or put another way, I’d look at it as “do you have a better or worse chance compared to the average applicant.”

I’m also broad in my categories – Safety, 95%+ chance of admission. Likely – 65-95% chance of admission. Match – 30-65% chance of admission. Reach, below 30%.
I’m seeing some people being so conservative that they are looking at a 50% chance as being a reach.

Maybe. Certainly, it’s good not to let expectations get too high, it’s important to try to avoid disappointment. At the same time, being overly conservative can become discouraging to young people and can make the process more stressful. Telling a 17 year old with great high school accomplishment, “you have very little chance of getting into your top choices” isn’t necessarily healthy, especially if it’s not true.

Take that 4.0 / 1500 kid… to me, setting a realistic expectation is, “Great accomplishments! it’s a challenging application environment, there are no guarantees. But if you demonstrate interest, write great essays, use early decision wisely, you have a realistic chance of getting into at least 1 of your top choices”
As opposed to, “despite all your hard work, you can still apply to the top schools but you have very little chance of getting into even second tier schools. You really need to concentrate on 3rd tier schools.”

So there are definite dangers of excessive optimism, but it’s equally dangerous to a student’s mental health to be overly pessimistic. I’d rather just be honest and realistic.

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Honest and realistic are in the eye of the beholder ; )

I think there is a fallacy that there are a bunch of 3.5/1300/2 AP kids applying to highly selective schools and that “really” you are only competing with a small set of students. That isn’t the case. TO has certainly changed the landscape on test scores but 4.0 GPAs and tons of APs are still the norm for the vast majority of applicants. Ad coms just have one less data point to use.

I also think the danger is how families classify “second tier”. Many parents use antiquated knowledge based on school reputation for years ago when the landscape for college admissions can pivot very, very quickly.

All students need a truly balanced list. A safety is no longer an OOS flagship (sometimes not even instate depending on location) and acceptance rates have to be considered when deciding what is a safety and a match.

I do hear what you are saying about also not being overly pessimistic either, but there is a balance to the message that I think many on CC miss.

I did interviews (now non evaluative meetings) for Cornell for 20+ years. Over that time, I spoke to hundreds of amazing, high achieving, students. I can count on two hands how many were accepted in the last 10 years, more recently, less than one hand. There is so more at play than demonstrating interest, essays, etc… that is very much out of a student’s control. I stressed to our D that a college rejection didn’t negate a second of hard work that she did in HS, or what it meant for her future success.

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I don’t really disagree with anything you said.
But while there may not be tons of 3.5’s applying to highly selective schools, there actually still are plenty of 3.7’s and 3.8’s, especially in a test option environment. And when they have a hook, they get in.
My high school got 3 into Yale this year… 1 of the 3 is a mid-level HS achiever, ranked in the bottom half of the class, GPA around 3.5… But had the hook of being an athlete. Lots of 3.7s and 3.8s still apply, crossing their fingers, hoping their ECs or essays somehow provide some sort of hook. For example, I just peeked at the 2021-2022 CDS for Brown University, 10% of the admitted class was not in the top 10% of their high school class. Of the 50% who submitted SAT scores, 25% has SATs below 1470. Those numbers tell you that there are certainly plenty of applications from 3.7/1450 SATs or even 3.7-3.8 test option.
And I do think it’s important to differentiate the message we send to someone with 3.8/test optional as opposed to 4.0/1580. It’s a disservice to look at both students and just shrug, “reaches for both of you.”
Think it’s important to appreciate the difference between a student that may have a 3% chance of admission versus a student who may have a 10-15% shot.

But overall, I do totally agree with you. There needs to be a balance, expectations should be tempered. You don’t want a student getting unnecessarily depressed with a ton of unexpected rejections. But you also don’t want a student depressed through the whole process because they think they don’t have a chance.

I was just looking over my local high school graduating class for this year, about 3/4ths have publicly shared their results. We have 9 co-valedictorians who have shared their results, 7 out of 9 are going to Ivies or Ivy equivalent. (I’m using Cornell/UCLA level as the cut off). We have 60 students with GPA of 4.0 or better. 30 out of the 60 are going to Ivy or equivalent. In total, 35 are going to Ivy or equivalent (in addition to the 30 4.0 students, 5 students with GPAs below 4.0).

So based on my own analysis of my own local data, I’d conclude-- A top 1-2% applicant might have a very low chance of acceptance at any one Ivy-equivalent, but they have a very good chance of getting into at least one Ivy-equivalent if they apply to many (and use ED).
And a top 10%, 4.0, student has at least a 50/50 shot of getting into an Ivy equivalent. (If you apply to 10 schools where you have a 10% shot at each school, you may have a 50/50 of getting into at least one).

All this comes down to me agreeing with you – It’s important to build a balanced list. For a super high achiever, that means not banking on just 1 or 2 dream schools. Apply to lots of those selective schools without counting on just one, and also building in true matches, likely and safety into your list.

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When I say “Match” – to me, that means the applicant has about a 40-60% chance of getting in. It’s based mainly on stats, hooks (or lack thereof), round they are applying in (ED is usually a bump…), and the acceptance rate of the school.

So if your stats are the mean at Harvard, then Harvard is not a match – because Harvard isn’t a match for anyone who isn’t supremely hooked.

But if your stats are the mean at my alma mater, UW-Madison… then UW-Madison is a match.

Acceptance rates have fallen with the increase in applications – increasing the denominator at so many schools.

I agree with the effect of yield protection as well. That’s why we (in the old days, three years ago…) used to tell a superstar applying to a Case Western or Lehigh or Tulane: show heavy interest.

This year, Tulane was the poster child for yield protection. Go check out their RD page – just about every kid who commented was rejected or waitlisted in the RD round, and most of them had stats at or above Tulane’s mid-range. They seem to have taken almost their entire class ED – though of course that is based on just the kids who commented on this site; some must have been accepted RD, right? lol

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Tulane is a great example, I believe their ED acceptance rate was close to 30%, filling more than 50% of their class. While their EA rate was only about 10%.

But they aren’t alone – Trying to fill half the class with ED is becoming the norm. Boston University is a good illustration, they just released their CDS for 2021-2022 (class of 2025). 76,000 applications in total, 14,000 offered admission, for an admission rate of 18.4%. BUT… ED was 1877 students out of 5659, 33% acceptance rate. That means, their non-ED acceptance rate was only about 17.4%.
Effectively – they filled about half their class with ED, and their ED acceptance rate was double the non-ED rate. And this resulted in over enrollment – I suspect they corrected this for the class of 2026 by increasing the spread, boosting the ED enrollment while cutting the RD acceptance even further.

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It would be hard to prove, but I’m going to assume that a lot of kids being rejected/waitlisted in the RD round had better GPA and test scores than at least some of the kids being accepted ED.

Which would mean, if my assumption is true: yield means more to some schools than the GPA/test score stats of the admitted class.

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It’s not hard to prove at all. I see it crystal clear on Naviance.
Though, they would spin it not as protecting yield, but rewarding those who demonstrate the greatest interest, putting applicants first who put them first.

For example, Cornell is very popular out of my high school, so lots of data. ED – 3.9/1470 mostly gets you in. (a few rejections above them, but not many. And several acceptances below that, but acceptance rate of over 50% with 3.9 and 1470). For regular decision, really need 4.0 and 1500 just to be considered, and that’s still way less than 50%…

Since people use ED for their “reach” schools mostly, it means that the stats of ED applicants may be a bit lower than the RD applicants. While the acceptance rate is much higher. (If you have a 4.0 and 1550, you probably aren’t applying ED to a safety school).

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In some contexts, distinguishing between “reach”, “high reach”, “unrealistic reach”, and “out of reach” may be worthwhile.

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IIRC, the only big-name schools that don’t really provide a bump for applying in the earliest round are MIT and Georgetown. Other schools do seem to provide a pretty decent bump.

(though MIT and G’town do not call their earliest round ED… just EA.)

My reach hair-splitting comprises:

High Reach: <5% chance
Reach: 5-15%
Low Reach: 15-25%

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UCLA generally probably is not as selective as Ivy League schools. However, certain UCLA divisions (engineering, nursing, theater/film/television) may be more comparable in admission selectivity.

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Or… “Reach because your stats are a bit low” vs “Reach because your stats match, but they have such a low acceptance rate”

For “reach because your stats are a bit low” – You can try to re-take the SAT, try to add a couple APs in your Senior year (if you’re a rising Senior), and you can try to bulk of ECs to compensate. If it’s “reach because your stats match but they have such a low acceptance rate” – Then all you can do is use ED, try to find a hook, and cross your fingers.

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By the time it gets to be senior year in high school, stats are mostly baked-in (high school record through 11th grade). Improving test scores may help if they are the weakest part of the application, but a below-typical-for-the-college GPA or rigor is not easily changed. “Finding a hook” is not easily done, since most typical hooks are “inherited” (LDC or URM) rather than being something the student can do anything about. The type of hook that the applicant can contribute to earning themself (recruited athlete) needs to have been started being developed long before senior year in high school.

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UCLA acceptance rate for Class of 2025 was 11%… getting pretty darn close to Ivy level. But ok, if I made the cut off Cornell’s 9%, then it’s still 28 out of 60 going to Ivy equivalent and 31 overall. Essentially, 11% of the class going to Ivy or Ivy-equivalent. (graduating class slightly under 300).

Super helpful list that you shared, and great advice! Congrats to your daughter on UCLA!

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I love Davidson. My grandfather was an alum, as well as one of my best friends from high school. But, my daughter is only willing to consider small LACs under very specific circumstances ,which is basically that the school must be located in what is - for her - a highly desirable city like NYC or LA. Hence her interest in Occidental and Barnard. I don’t agree with her criteria, and think she’s limiting herself, but, there you have it.

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What I meant by “try to find a hook” wasn’t meant to suggest you can suddenly invent one in December of your Senior year. I meant more of, try to emphasize / use a hook you have. If you founded a volunteer organization that raised $250,000 for refugees from Ukraine, make sure it’s more than just a footnote on your common app. If you’re a legacy at a select school, consider using it over other schools where you don’t have that hook. If you’re an underrepresented minority outside of race, make sure it’s known in your essays.

Depending on the school, in many, you can add lots of rigor in Senior year. In my local school, APs and dual enrollment classes are off-limits to Freshmen and Sophomores. The max APs for a Junior is 2-3. But in Senior year, you can add up to 5-6 more APs and dual enrollment. And for RD, schools absolutely will look at first Semester senior year grades. So if you were borderline, 3.9ish out of your junior year, but in your Senior year, you’re getting straight 4.0 in 6 AP classes… It could put someone over the line.

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