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Articles / Applying to College / What is the "Cluster Effect"?

Feb. 11, 2002

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.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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