College-bound juniors who are about to enter their senior year have often started to make their first college lists, often with “reach schools” that they have yet to visit. The summer might be the best time to do some homework before selecting which reach schools will receive an application.
What is a reach school? If quantified, a reach school is a college where a student’s high school grades and test scores are not likely to be in the top quarter of the previous year’s applicant pool. If you buy a copy of U.S. News Best Colleges, for example, you will see an average GPA for most colleges as well as a range for the middle 50 percent of SAT or ACT scores. If your GPA is below the average for a particular college, and not likely to rise above it, even with near perfect grades in the first half of the senior year, and your scores are below the 25th percentile, then the school is a reach.
But it can also be argued that schools that turn away the vast majority of applicants are also reach schools. These schools frequently turn away students who have achieved excellence in the classroom and have scored extremely high on standardized tests. Those who were accepted had something extra, a talent that the college valued (athletics is the most conspicuous example) or that the applicant had proven to a national or global audience. Actors such as Jodie Foster, Brooke Shields and Emma Watson are among the clearest examples of Ivy Leaguers who had proven their talents before they started college.
Suppose you fall into the first category: your grades and test scores fall short and are not likely to improve enough to vault you into the middle of the applicant pool at your reach school. Should you still try to get in? It depends. Suppose you are interested in a specific major offered by that school. Your academic strengths and extracurricular achievements, maybe a part-time job, point you towards that program. Your grades in other subjects, while not “all A’s” are at least B’s. If it is clear that you can excel against the best students in that major, then why not try for the reach school and choose that major?
My suggestion if you are one of these applicants: choose the “intellectual problem” essay for the Common Application. Talk about how you would solve a “big problem” being studied by academics and professionals within that major. Send that essay to a faculty member in that departments and let him or her know that you would like to be one of their students one day. As long as you can improve your grades and test scores, you might fare better in getting into your reach school than you might expect.
Another strategy for those who fall in the first category: look for a reach school that is test optional, and don’t submit the test scores. If you will need financial aid, you must choose a school where aid will be need-based or, if aid is merit based, it is not tied to test scores. Again, choose the intellectual problem essay and state your case about your interests.
But suppose you fall in the second category: you have attained excellence in the classroom and in test taking, but you have no special talents that make you known at a global or national level. Should you forget about your reach school?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. One way to answer is: you don’t know how you will fare in admissions unless you apply. In this case, it also helps if you have a specific major in mind and your interests point you in that direction. Choosing the “intellectual problem” essay is also a good idea in these circumstances. Your motivation and direction to solve that problem is what will separate you from the other applicants.
I have also heard and read comments that students should choose an obscure major, one that few who are already undergraduates at your reach school have chosen. The thought is that the college will be desperate for students to enroll in that major. However, admissions officers at the most selective schools are savvy readers. If nothing on the transcript or the essays points an applicant towards, for example, a commitment related to a major in Jewish Studies, that applicant will more likely than not be denied admission. If the applicant has excelled in Hebrew school over 13 years, has tutored seventh graders for Bar and Bat Mitzvah since the eighth grade, directed several religious services with the rabbi at their synagogue and leads the local Jewish youth group, then it is a very different story.
The vast majority of colleges, fortunately, are not reach schools for the majority of their applicants, unless the reach is for financial reasons. While it is a major achievement to gain admission to a reach school, it is more important that the college you choose be one that is likely to be affordable to your family and committed to helping its students to succeed. The euphoria of getting into a reach school lasts only until a college student walks into their first college class. Then its time for the real work to begin.
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