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Your List of Colleges: What Are Likely, Target, and Reach Schools?

a close up of four darts in a dart board

Crafting a college list can be stressful, among other things [read: overwhelming, frustrating, time-consuming…]. While a little stress can be good because this is pretty important, there’s no reason that building your college list should keep you up at night.

For those of you vaguely recalling a lecture from health class, yes, we’re talking about the difference between eustress and distress

One of the ways we’re going to try and make this easier, leaning more towards that good type of stress, is by breaking down how many colleges you should apply to, the three college categories you need to apply from, and what else you should consider while making your college list. 

Ready? Let’s go!

What Are Likely, Target, and Reach Schools?

Likely, Target, and Reach are just terms we use to describe the three types of schools all students should be applying to. There’s no definitive list of these colleges and universities because they vary per student — they’re based entirely on you and your academic standing.

To determine your Likely, Target, and Reach schools, have your standardized test scores and GPA handy! 

Likely schools

These are the colleges that you have a very strong (or “likely”) chance of getting into. They should check off all of your other boxes (size, location, degree offering) and consistently accept students with GPAs and test scores below yours. 

A word of caution here — while you want this to be on the lower end of your academic scale, they’re not intended to be below it, necessarily. You want your college to fall within a certain academic range to ensure that you’re sufficiently challenged and get out of the college what you need to. 

Target schools

These are the colleges and universities that are right on the money — they fit your GPA and standardized test scores on the money. While chances of being accepted are good, there’s still the possibility of being waitlisted or denied at these target schools, especially the more competitive a school is. 

Reach Schools

These are the institutions that more commonly accept students with higher GPAs or standardized test scores. Notably, these schools are not “out of your academic range” but rather at the very top of it.


Where Do I Categorize Ivy League Schools?

Ivy League schools do not fall in any of these categories. Many lump them in with Reach schools, but that’s a bit of a misplacement. Because Ivy League schools so heavily limit their student population, many very qualified students get denied, even ones identical to other students that are accepted. Because of this, it’s highly encouraged to keep Ivy League institutions entirely separate from your college list. 

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t apply to them — do it! Submit your application! There’s a chance you could fall in that small percent accepted. On top of sending in your applications to the Ivy League, though, make sure to make a list of Likely, Target, and Reach schools to apply to, as well.

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

Of course, the next question is how many Reach, Target, or Likely schools you should apply to or have on your list. It’s recommended that students apply to an average of 7-9 schools, making sure that you have a few colleges from each category. 

If you intend to apply to 7 colleges, you’ll want your list to look like this: 

  • 2 Likely Schools
  • 3 Target Schools
  • 2 Reach Schools

If you want to apply to 8 schools, weight your list like this: 

  • 3 Likely Schools
  • 3 Target Schools
  • 2 Reach Schools

If you’re applying to 9 schools, you can weigh your list evenly. Or, more practically, you can distribute it this way: 

  • 3 Likely Schools
  • 4 Target Schools
  • 2 Reach Schools

So to answer the question, "how many reach schools should I apply to," we say it depends on how many schools in total are on your list. No matter the number, just spread your applications out so you have your bases covered. 

How to Know What Colleges to Apply To

Meet Ezra. Ezra is a current senior in high school. He doesn’t particularly care where he goes to college geographically, but he knows he wants to attend a midsize school that offers a great nursing program so he can become a Nurse Practitioner.


A young man, laughing, stands in front of a pink background. He's wearing a yellow sweater.

Ezra M. - HS Senior

Graduates: 05/23

GPA: 3.7

ACT Score: 30

Intended Major: Nursing


As you can see from this card, Ezra did well in high school — he has a 3.7 GPA and earned a 30 on his ACT. Knowing this, we can create a well-rounded list of schools for Ezra to attend!

Likely Schools

Ezra has a wide option of “Likely” schools to choose from. Despite this, he still wants to stay within his academic range, not dropping too far below his GPA and ACT score. He’ll want to keep an eye on the averages of accepted students to do this.

A good option for Ezra is Fairfield University, which accepts students with an average ACT score of 28 and a GPA of 3.6. His marks exceed both of those numbers, but not by too much. The acceptance rate at Fairfield University is 61%, so he will also want to apply to at least two other Likely schools.

Target Schools

The University of Portland is a good match for Ezra’s academic history.  While they have an average composite ACT score of 26, they have an average GPA of 3.7. With a 70% acceptance rate, this is also a reasonable Target institution.

Another Target school for Ezra would be Binghamton University, which aligns perfectly with his academic level. The average accepted student has a 30 ACT with an average GPA of 3.7. However, Binghamton is pretty competitive, only accepting 40% of students applying, so it’s important that this school is one among several others applied to.

Reach Schools

Emory University, while one of Ezra’s favorites, is considered a Reach institution. The average admitted student has a 3.8 GPA and an average composite ACT score of 32, both of which are just a bit higher than Ezra’s scores. 

Ezra has a lot to consider, and likely wants to apply to the full 9 schools since his academics fall in the competitive category, which can make getting accepted dicey since many of these schools turn away perfectly good candidates yearly. Students applying to a range of schools that are less selective may opt to apply to 7 instead, since the odds lean towards being accepted.

Can You Identify Likely, Target, and Reach Schools for Yourself?

Putting together a college list is a personal process. You have to identify what type of school you want to attend, where you want that school to be, and the college's degree availability before you begin identifying Likely, Target, and Reach Schools.

It’s time-consuming and can seem overwhelming, but Appily can make it easier on you. Fill out your profile with your GPA and add a few schools. They'll automatically be organized into Likely, Target, and Reach schools based on your academic profile! We'll also recommend more schools so you can continue to discover new colleges and universities to consider. 

Creating a well-rounded list is the ideal foundation for a good college journey! Get started today!


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