Applications University

What schools should I apply to? US College Edition

With Regular Decision deadlines (RD) looming in early January, college application season is reaching full force. Applying to colleges in the US can be a highly intimidating affair. Especially given the complex application process, and pricey application (and attendance) fees. I empathize deeply with anyone navigating this process. As such, I hope to provide those who are at a loss on where to start with some considerations to narrow down the over 4000 colleges to a list of colleges to which you may intend to apply. 

1. Balance

Harvard’s acceptance rate is 4.6%, and its Ivy League brethren is not far off, with even the “least rejective” being Cornell at 10.3%. These statistics further demand a double take when considering that the applicant pool to these colleges is in itself self-selecting . As such, no matter how qualified an applicant is, they must be realistic in the application process. This is so to increase their chances of securing a spot in a college. The conventional wisdom is to split one’s prospective schools into 3 categories. “Reaches”, which are highly selective schools (or in my personal opinion any school with a sub 20% acceptance rate, or schools whereby your standardized test scores (SATs/ACTs) fall below the 25 percentile). “Targets”, which are schools of which your standardized test scores fall within the 25-75 percentile. And lastly “Safeties”, which are schools to which your standardized test scores exceed the 75 percentile. Note that this is just a rough guide. Admissions considers many other factors besides standardized test scores (in fact many schools are still “test optional”, although I would advise taking the SATs/ACTs if one has the opportunity to). 

2. Major

There are two primary “major-related” factors one should consider in a college- the strength of one’s intended major, as well as the flexibility of changing majors. If one is sure of their intended major, the former would be the primary consideration, and if one is less decided, the latter would be more important .  For instance, Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science (SCS) would be an excellent choice for a student who is sure of their intention to pursue Computer Science, given its rigorous academics and reputation in Computer Science. However, given that SCS admits by major, and the specificity of the modules to Computer Science from freshman year, it may not be advisable for someone who is still exploring their intended major. Those who are less decisive can thus consider applying more generally to various colleges’ College of Arts and Sciences, which typically allow one to spend a year exploring a breadth of modules before settling on their major in their Sophomore year of college. Nevertheless, the strength of a college in one’s intended (or at least probable) major should be taken into consideration. 

3. Fit

While some may view colleges as statistics on the USNews rankings, it is crucial to keep in mind that college is ultimately 4 of some of the best years of your life. As such, one’s commitment with the school’s values, culture and even campus are highly effective in these following years. When considering a college, do take the effort to read up extensively, not just on the colleges’ websites, but on student experiences (reddit and youtube are your friend) and campus tours (physically if possible but virtual tours are great too).

4. Cost 

Finally, the unfortunate reality is that college in the US is very expensive. For most, the most affordable would be attending one’s state school. However, for out of state and international applications, this option, one would need to look carefully at the school’s financial aid policies. However, even schools that provide financial aid to international students below a certain income level are often “need-aware”, especially for international applicants, and the “need-blind” schools (namely Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Amherst and Dartmouth) are some of the most competitive schools admissions wise. As such, one should consider casting a relatively wide net when applying as an international applicant. One should also look out for merit scholarship applications. 

I hope that the above 4 tips are helpful in composing the list of colleges to which you are applying. All the best!


Ivy League Admissions’ Statistics

Need Blind Schools


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