I don’t know about you, but the beginning of this school year seemed to come out of nowhere. Suddenly, summer was just over.

While many seniors are clear about their top college choices (and are hard at work on those applications), I’m finding that a number of students have been asking about how to make sure their list is balanced.

At the end of the day, it’s about making sure that you have options. In the meantime, it’s also about balancing your obligations — school, applications, activities, etc. — and making sure you don’t overextend yourself during these busy months.

I typically recommend that students lock in a list of 6 - 10 applications total.

That doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to applying to ten colleges overall; if you can submit to multiple campuses through a single application — for example, the University of California schools — then I’d count that as one application.

The same goes for any college you can add to one of the big application platforms, like the Common App, without having to write any additional supplements: it doesn’t increase the count because you don’t have to do any additional work.

To make sure you have a balanced range of selectivity, I suggest the following guidelines:

  • at least 2 likely schools: 75% chance or above that you will get in

  • at least 2 target schools: 35% - 75% chance that you will get in

  • at least 2 reach schools: under 35% that you will get in

How do you determine those numbers? Well, there’s good news and bad news.

The bad news is that there is no way of knowing those numbers with a high degree of precision. Any number of factors can affect admissions decisions from year to year, from the number of applicants you’ll be competing with to the specific backgrounds admissions officials are seeking in prospective students.

The good news is that there are many tools out there to help you get a better sense of your chances. Here are some suggestions of what to use and how to use them:

SOURCE: https://colleges.niche.com/tulane-university/

SOURCE: https://colleges.niche.com/tulane-university/

Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Make sure, first, to ask whether the colleges on your list recalculate GPA. If so, what is their methodology? Again, to use the UC system as an example, those schools evaluate only your grades from 10 - 12th grade. They do weight for approved honors classes, but they cap the total number of extra credits that can be counted toward that weighting. If you want quick assistance with GPA recalculation, check out this tool from the website Alfouro.

  2. Next, check out the scattergrams that plot acceptances in terms of GPA and test scores. Naviance does this, if your high school has an account, but you can also look at Niche.com or Cappex.com at individual school profiles.

  3. Last: go to Parchment.com and create a free profile. Take your time with this one! This is a company that securely transmits official transcripts between institutions like high schools and colleges, and so they have the insider's scoop on the kinds of profiles students who are accepted, denied, and waitlisted at various colleges applied with.

Bottom line: if you haven’t yet finalized your list, put that action item at the very top of your priorities list. Doing so will enable you to determine exactly how much application work you have ahead, as well as allow you peace of mind knowing that you’ll have options when everything is said and done.