Selectivity in College Admissions

Advisors typically ask students to begin to see potential colleges in terms of four types:

Reach schools provide a slim chance of acceptance, such as a 5% or slimmer chance.
Possibles (or high matches) have greater chance of rejection than acceptance.
Probables (or low matches) have greater chance of acceptance than rejection.
Solid or safety schools seldom reject candidates with similar academic credentials.

High school counselors recommend that a safety school be one that a student would like to attend if rejected everywhere else. Mark Kantrowitz advised having at least one financial aid safety school that is affordable even without financial aid. Another classification is "unlikelies" (5% chance of acceptance), "reach schools" (25% chance), "possibles" (50% chance), and "likelies" (80% chance).

Typically counselors will suggest an applicant apply to a mix of the different types of schools, usually having at least one safety school, but the numbers of the others are up to students and families. Andover's counseling director recommends that a student apply to a minimum of two "solid" schools and two "probable" schools. Many high schools subscribe to an online service called Naviance, which, among other things, can help a student gauge the likelihood of admission to a particular college.It is based on a student's grades and test scores in comparison to the admissions results from students from previous years applying to that particular college (see diagram). Naviance uses a scattergram to graphically illustrate the chances for a student from a particular high school being admitted into a particular college or university. In addition, counselors can help a student consider different types of colleges, such as liberal arts colleges, research universities, and specialty schools. A report in Time magazine in 2013 suggested that it was almost impossible for poor students to gain admission to elite universities, and that the percentage of students at 28 elite colleges coming from less affluent households was relatively constant at around 10% from 2001 to 2009, based on a study that included all eight Ivy League schools. The difficulty of admissions to elite universities has sometimes prompted accusations:

The admissions system of the so-called best schools is rigged against you. If you are a middle-class youth or minority from poor circumstances, you have little chance of getting in to one of those schools. Indeed, the system exists not to provide social mobility but to prevent it and to perpetuate the prevailing social order.
-- Essayist Neal Gabler in the Boston Globe, 2010

Prestige and reputation: both of these variables with regard to colleges correlates with age, such that the oldest east-coast schools tend to have accumulated the most prestige by virtue of their longevity. There is widespread consensus that the fit between a student and a school is an important factor. Several reports suggest that "fit should trump prestige every single time," and that it is better for a school to match a student in terms of social, cultural, and academic qualities and not be chosen simply because of a school's prestige. Others see college admissions as essentially a choice between "price and prestige".

One admissions dean likens "fit" to a friendship:
I draw the analogy of friends to explain why fit is so important in considering a college. You like your good friends for some reason. It may not be an objective reason. It's often subjective. There's some sense of compatibility, a kind of intuition, a match, a common sense of values, what you like to do, how you think - those are the things that really bind people together. It's similar with college. You don't want to spend four years with a college who isn't really your friend.
-- Jennifer Rickard, admissions dean at Bryn Mawr

In addition, counselors can help less academically astute students find good colleges to help them pursue careers, and can point out colleges that are "gems" but relatively unknown. In some cases, choosing a college in a different part of the country can improve chances for admission, particularly if the college is seeking "geographical diversity." One study suggests that the overall prestige of a person's college is less important, overall, in predicting how they would fare in later life, and that personal characteristics, such as aptitude, are more important.