If you’re anything like me, the world is full of too many universities to choose from. I investigated hundreds of colleges in my research, contacted thirty, visited twenty, and eventually applied to ten. I spent months determining the proper formula of schools to apply to: how many was too many? Did I apply to enough options?
With all of these thoughts running through my mind, I developed a formula to assemble the perfect range of colleges on your application list and, borrowing a metaphor from my favorite college admissions guidebook – it’s as simple as Neapolitan ice cream. First though, you need to understand what the “Middle 50%” means.
THE MIDDLE 50%
These are statistics provided by every university that can be found online or on their admissions page. It represents the average range for ACT/SAT scores of accepted students. It’s also an extremely useful tool for determining the likelihood of your admission. For instance, my score on the ACT was a 33. One of my safety schools was the University of Washington (click on the “Achievement” tab to view Middle 50%); I knew it was a safety school, because most accepted students had an ACT score between 25 and 31. My score was higher, so I knew that my chances of admission were higher. Some schools might offer variations on this statistic. I also applied to Reed College, whose average ACT score is 31. This was close to my number, so I knew that it classified as a compromise school for me. Now, let’s have some ice cream!
CHOCOLATE = REACH SCHOOLS. The Middle 50% of admitted students’ test scores are higher than your own OR the admissions rate is at/below 15%. These are the colleges that everyone and their sister want to attend. It’s a highly desirable academic environment with competitive admissions. Scholarships might be difficult to receive given the high volume of applicants.
VANILLA = COMPROMISE SCHOOLS. The Middle 50% of admitted students’ test scores match your own.
These are colleges are still great schools that anyone would be happy to attend, but they’re slightly less competitive and less prestigious than reach schools. Scholarships are handed out to students of merit more frequently.
STRAWBERRY = SAFETY SCHOOLS. The Middle 50% of admitted students’ test scores are lower than your own. These colleges are significantly less competitive in their admissions and most often large public schools or small, local private schools. Depending on your interests, this might also be a community college. Merit-based scholarships are more readily available to students with competitive applications.
Use these classifications to balance your college application list. Aim to perfectly divide your options into thirds between chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry schools. If you apply to three schools, hit one of each. If you apply to nine schools, include three of each.
Strawberry schools are extremely important to pay attention to, and perhaps one of the most important elements of your college search. In April, they’ll give you a variety of options with better financial aid (at least in my experience) than your vanilla and chocolate choices. Too many students apply to strawberry schools that they aren’t really interested in attending; this is a fatal mistake.
The goal is to have a wide array of options when it is time to make the final decision and ample choices to find the closest (and most realistic) fit of financial aid, academic rigor, class sizes, location, and personal interest— so it’s possible to attend the best university for you. Best of luck with your applications!
Madeline Ewbank now happily attends Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Her favorite things about her college decision are its proximity to improv theater, free student admission to the Art Institute of Chicago, and the opportunity to teach ACT 36 classes just 5 minutes from campus. She is excited to help students achieve their college a