"Spread the Risk": Leverage Your Competitiveness as a College Applicant
Shakespeare said, "Know thyself." That's good advice in general and great advice for college applicants. Your college-application strategy should begin with an honest appraisal of how you stack up as a competitive applicant. A frank assessment early on can save you much rejection grief down the road. How can you do this?
The first step is to develop a reasonable list of college candidates. This may be old news to some of you, but it's surprising how many seniors overlook the obvious advantages of "spreading the risk" by creating a candidate list that is ridiculously top heavy. A typical top-heavy list might include the usual suspects: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, and so on. Sometimes candidates will throw in a hastily picked "safety" just in case. A spread like this is way out of balance.
However, if your overall profile compares favorably with those of admitted first-year students at your candidate colleges (information usually available on college Web sites), you'll know that you at least have a chance. As I mention above, though, don't just go by numbers alone. There are also the essays, your recommendations, your application packaging (marketing extras), and those ever-present (or never-present) intangibles. These can make a significant difference.
The best way to deal with rejection is to minimize the number of schools from which you might be rejected. That seems obvious, doesn't it? You'd be surprised how many seniors load up on low-percentage candidates. Notice that in this paragraph's lead sentence, I said "minimize" rather than "eliminate" the rejections. I believe that every senior should include some risk candidates (usually referred to as "reach" or "stretch" schools). The unpredictability of elite admissions is such that sometimes even apparently marginal candidates get in. There's no reason why you couldn't be among that group.
The classic "spread" consists of a handful of reach candidates, some carefully considered "ballparks" (a.k.a. "target") schools, and a-once again, carefully chosen-safety or two. How, then, should you think about spreading your candidates for maximum effect?
I like to see a minimum of five-to-six colleges on a candidate list-two reaches, maybe three or four ballparks, and a safety or two. Your list should not be HYPSM plus your local state university. That's just irresponsible and foolhardy planning.