Tips for Choosing Target Schools: What's the Right Fit For You?

Padya Paramita

Tips for Choosing Target Schools: What's the Right Fit For You?

You’re a rising senior hoping to start coming up with a list of colleges where you want to apply. Of course, you’ve got your dream school in mind—that should be fairly straightforward as you consider where to apply early and colleges you’ve always wanted to attend. However, with the college admissions landscape being more competitive than ever, you cannot just leave it at reach schools. You’ll also need to be choosing target schools and safety options. While you’ve probably already thought of safeties, it’s time to dive deeper into what exactly is considered a target school and how to determine the right targets for you.

The process of making your school list isn’t easy. While reaches and safeties are relatively straightforward to figure out, determining what can be considered a target school is relatively tricky. To help guide you through the process of choosing target schools that make sense for your application profile, I have outlined exactly what is meant by a target school, alongside other tips and tricks that will help you determine colleges that are right fits for you. 

What Is A Target School?

Because the college admissions process is so unpredictable, you cannot guarantee acceptance at any school. As a result, instead of only applying to Ivy Leagues or top 10 colleges, your list should be tiered. 

Colleges on your list will fit into one of three tiers: reach, target, and safety. Reach schools are schools that might be difficult for you to get into because they are extremely selective or because you fall below the average range for enrolled freshmen. These colleges often are what many applicants consider “dream schools,” and are the most competitive. Target schools are those that meet your numbers—this list of schools is entirely subjective, depending on your GPA and SAT score. Target schools don’t guarantee admission either, as a lot of factors are considered beyond your grades. Choosing target schools should be a well-thought-out process—you cannot take them for granted. Schools are defined as “safety” if your academic credentials are above the average range for admitted freshmen. This doesn’t always mean you’re a shoo-in either, but it’s good to cover your back and keep your options open.

Reach, target, and safety choices can be entirely subjective, depending on a student’s credentials. A college where your academic credentials fall within the range of the school’s 50th percentile is generally considered a target school for you. 

How to Look For Target Schools

School list building always starts with research: GPA, standardized test scores, and admission rates. School websites will typically publish data about all of these factors. You can also simply Google “[College Name] admitted student profile” to find this data pretty easily. Make sure you are looking at the most recently admitted class profile (last year’s students), as this data may change over time.

When choosing target schools, make sure your GPA is within the average and that your standardized test scores are above the 50th percentile. This means that among all other applicants, (based on academics alone) you fall in the top 50% of the pool. (Note: other factors, such as extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, essays, etc. will all be important factors in admission as well!). 

Lastly, the college’s admission rate will tell you how selective it is at a macro level. To be conservative, make sure a school has an acceptance rate at or above 20-25% to consider it a true target school. Note that schools with admission rates below 20% are highly selective and should not be considered target schools for anyone regardless of how impressive your GPA and standardized test scores may be. Highly selective schools will reject students with perfect grades and test scores because they have limited spots, so be careful! 

Remember That A Target School Doesn’t Just Mean Numbers

What entails reach and safety schools is often fairly easy to understand, based on rankings, prestige, and acceptance rate. While choosing target schools, however, you have to dig a little deeper than the surface level. Generally speaking, your SAT score and GPA should fall right within the median numbers of your target schools. However, it doesn’t stop there. You might have a 1540 SAT, and Harvard’s median SAT score is 1520. This by no means indicates that Harvard should be a target school for you. There are so many other factors that go into consideration for admission to a college like Harvard such as truly stepping out of your comfort zone and succeeding in your field in extracurricular leadership, etc. 

If you have strong numbers and leadership, you should definitely apply to top schools, but for your target schools, you might consider colleges ranked below the Top 20, that still are wonderful colleges, such as University of Michigan, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon College etc. 

Target Schools Depend on the Student

As I mentioned before, target schools can be entirely subjective. While it’s easy to determine your reaches and safeties, remember that what is a target school for you might actually not be considered a target school for everyone else. And this works both for students with strong GPAs and SAT scores and students who may not feel as confident academically. In the first case, if you do have really good numbers and highly impressive extracurriculars, you know you’re in a good place and you’ll probably consider colleges in ranked in the mid-20s such as University of Virginia and University of Southern California—or even top 10 liberal arts colleges such as Wellesley and Middlebury as your target school.

However, if your GPA isn’t quite as high as you’d like it to be and you’re not as confident about your admissions chances, the colleges mentioned above might actually be considered reaches for you because they are still very selective. In this case, you might look towards the lower 20s to upper 30s for choosing target schools, and consider colleges such as Boston College, New York University, and Tufts University your target schools instead. Again, given how competitive colleges are in the post-pandemic rounds (NYU’s 2021 acceptance rate is only 12.8%), many of these might actually end up being reaches.

The point is, conduct thorough research. You’ll gain confidence if you get into your target schools, so you need to apply to places where you have a strong chance.

Where Wouldn’t You Apply Early Decision?

My final tip for choosing target schools is asking yourself whether you would apply somewhere early decision or restricted early action or not. And, yes, sometimes students do apply early decision to their target schools. However, most of the time, students shoot for reaches such as Harvard and Columbia for their early applications since the binding agreement showcases commitment—and they’re competing against a smaller pool. So, if you’re considering applying early decision somewhere, that college is probably not your target school. 

One exception to this rule is a case where your target school offers early action, which is nonbinding. Many students, alongside applying early decision or restricted early action to a top tier school, also apply early action to target schools such as University of Michigan, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, and University of Virginia. This is absolutely something you can consider!

At the end of the day, you want to achieve a balanced list of about ⅓  reach schools, ⅓ target schools, and ⅓ safety schools. Choosing target schools is definitely tough. However, if you sit down and spend a couple of hours doing research and determining where you might fall in comparison to the rest of your peers, you can figure out what target options for you entail. Good luck!

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