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How High Should You Reach?

Americans seem to approach everything with optimism. Just look at some of our more widespread clichés:

“Reach for the stars.”

“Anything is possible.”

“Follow your dreams.”

Many colleges – including the most highly selective – are quick to encourage this kind of thinking. Even with (in some cases) more than 30,000 applications, they continually market to increase that number. They tout “holistic review,” brag that they have no cut-offs for test scores or GPAs, and assure students that “at least two people” read every application.

Then they reject 9 out of 10 students who apply.

Maybe it’s time to consider the downside of “reaching for the stars.” First of all, it’s not that easy to apply to Ivy League, NESCAC and other highly selective colleges. They usually require extra essays and interviews. Sometimes they want additional test scores. They expect the applicant to take a highly demanding senior course load but still get all their application materials in by Halloween. And the student usually needs to line up two teachers to provide recommendations.

Second, with every “Why us” essay and alumni interview, the student becomes more invested in the dream school – the campus, the resources, the abundant opportunities. Other, more reasonable choices, lose their luster by comparison, as the reach college takes hold of the applicant’s mind. It becomes nearly impossible to avoid hurt feelings when the rejections come in – as they will for almost all applicants – even if the student “knows” they are coming.

Third, and most important, focusing on these “dream” schools can make a student neglect more realistic applications. A student’s credentials may be well within a certain college’s range statistically, but failing to go the extra mile to “demonstrate interest” can turn a slam-dunk acceptance into a spot on the waitlist. After all, like every other college, slightly less selective schools want students on their campus who are happy to be there. And they don’t want to see themselves as anybody’s “safety” school. Showing these colleges some “love” – visiting, interviewing, calling admissions representatives, writing “optional” essays – takes time. A college with an overall 25% admit rate might become closer to 50% for an applicant who takes the proper approach. If instead a student chooses to allocate those extra hours and that mental space pursuing a major reach school, he or she could forfeit the chance for admission to a great-fit college.

The good news for freshmen, sophomores and juniors is that they don’t have to shut down all their ambitions and develop a "realistic" list too soon. Whether highly selective or slightly less so, most colleges are looking for the same mix of academic challenge, leadership, and commitment in the students they admit. If fantasizing about attending Harvard or Vanderbilt, Middlebury or Pomona helps you put away the Xbox, excel in your classes, and develop your interests outside of school, by all means dream on! When students begin focusing on the college list in the spring of junior year, they should be able to articulate why each school is a good fit, both in terms of what they can bring to campus and what they would gain – personally and academically – from studying there. By all means, a balanced list of 7-9 colleges should include a couple of "reach" schools. But a student understand the amount of time and effort necessary to take his or her "best shot” and plan accordingly.

Every college counselor bemoans our national fixation on a small subset of colleges that reject nearly everybody. If you would like some help broadening your horizons, developing college goals and planning to achieve them, call me at 847-660-8625, or click “Contact Me” at the bottom of the page.

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