What is the “Cluster Effect”?

Question: What is the “Cluster Effect”? How about “stretch” and “safety” schools?

Most well-informed high school seniors know that there must be a strategy in place before they start their college application process. Though you may have a perfectly good set of reasons to apply to the colleges on your short list, there could be a major flaw in your plan. One of these common flaws is the Cluster Effect.

The Cluster Effect has zapped more than a few high school seniors. It happens when your short list contains colleges that are too similar in admission characteristics and are too near the “stretch” end of the scale. A stretch school is a college or university you have dreamed about attending. Stretch schools dwell on the very edge of your ability to get into them. They are not “impossible” schools for you but those you hold in very high esteem. They are your First Choices (assuming they’ll let you in).

If you apply to only stretch-type schools, you could find yourself out in the cold, mourning a fistful of those skinny rejection letters that come out every April. So, how do you avoid the Cluster Effect?

Think of your college application list in three parts: Stretch schools, Likely Candidates, and Safety schools. Your reaction to being accepted by these three types might go something like, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” (for Stretches), “Great!” (for Likelies), and “Okay.” (for Safeties). Safety schools are those where you are virtually guaranteed admission. Pick your safeties with care. There are significant differences among easy-to-get-into schools. Do your homework on safety schools. Give them the same careful consideration as the others on your list.

Incidentally, your list will be different from those of your classmates. A particular school may appear as a safety on one list and be a likely or stretch on others. You can’t judge a college or university by its position on student application lists. Again, do your college admission homework. Your efforts will be rewarded.