Re-thinking ‘reach’ colleges

Posted on 27th June 2022

Re-thinking ‘reach’ colleges

College counsellors wisely advise students to create a diverse college list with a range of options (sometimes called aspirational/match/likely), and many students begin that process with their list full of ‘reach’ or ‘aspirational’ options: universities with name recognition and low acceptance rates.

Avoiding this and creating a balanced college list including colleges with a range of selectivity is a great strategy that ensures students should receive multiple offers from good-fit colleges. It can also be beneficial to think even more deeply about these options when making decisions about which university you would like to attend, or when choosing how far to 'reach' when crafting your college list.

Be (positive but) realistic!

First, when thinking about your aspirational college, you want to be realistic in your expectations. If you set your heart on a hyperelite institution, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment! This isn't meant as pessimistic, and it isn’t because you aren't a stellar student who deserves to be around other intellectually vital individuals. It is simply down to the admission rates, which are in the single digits (you can view some in a recent blog here). This means that there is no guarantee of admission even for excellent applicants. You should choose your reach options wisely, and deeply research them, but it’s best not to put all your eggs in that basket. Ask yourself what you like about your reach college, and look for that at other institutions with admission rates around 15-20 percent or higher.

When drafting your college list, it's a great idea to create a spreadsheet listing the admission rates of each of the colleges you're considering. That way, you can ensure your college list is balanced regarding selectivity.

It’s about attending, not getting in

Second, many people focus on getting into their reach college, instead of attending their reach college. Having a goal can be excellent motivation throughout the in-depth US application process, but you want to think past getting that acceptance letter and into the actual academic experience you are likely to have at your reach university.

If you're someone who is at the top of your class, you might find it difficult to adjust to no longer being the best in class or getting all A*s. You may be academically average at your reach school, or even below average. How would that make you feel? If you're someone who thrives on competition, you might feel inspired to push yourself further. Other students might find this situation to be a blow to their self-confidence and motivation. There's no right answer: try to imagine how you'd really feel, based on previous experiences.

Another thing to consider is how important academics are to you. We all want to learn new things, perform well, and set ourselves up for later success. But what if at your aspirational college, the academic demands were so intense that you had limited time for extracurriculars, working out, socialising, clubs, or creative pursuits? If you're someone who doesn’t genuinely love school and studying, someone who is deeply involved in a non-academic activity like sport or music, or someone for whom having a thriving social life is an important factor for university fit, attending your reach college might mean that you have to lessen your involvement in those areas in order to keep your head above water academically. But if you’re someone for whom academics have been a major passion throughout school, and have invested most of your time in exploring these interests inside and outside school (in societies and Olympiads, for example), you could thrive by immersing yourself academically at your reach college.

You can think about what the academic experience might be at your match and likely colleges in similar terms. Perhaps you attend a highly competitive school, but your approach to academics is more laid-back; this might be quite intimidating and keep you from speaking up in class. You might thrive at your match/likely schools, but experience the same issue at your aspirational school! If you’re someone who has their heart set on hypercompetitive options, this approach might help you get more excited about the experience you’ll have at other institutions that allow you to be involved with a range of activities, lower the stress you’ll feel about academics, and have a thriving social life.

Study skills

Another thing to consider is the level of your 'study skills.' This means, are you used to doing hours of homework every night, including reading dense, lengthy texts? Do you know how to independently research and write a paper, and what tools to use to do so? Do you have a sense of how you learn best, and can you implement this when studying on your own? If you haven't developed these sorts of skills, you will need to if attending your reach college, in order to keep up with the work and absorb the material. Colleges know the importance of developing new students’ study skills, and will have resources to help you build them, like required study skills classes, and writing centres (in which graduate students read and give feedback on your papers before you hand them in). But you will need to use your initiative to take advantage of them if this is an area you need to build.

If you’re currently in Lower Sixth/Year 12/Grade 11, now is the time to start crafting your college list! If you need help navigating your reach, match, and safety options, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at or

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