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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Silbernagel

What is a Balanced College List?

A Guide to Understanding Admission Chances

An unbalanced teeter totter.

A balanced list.

It's a phrase heard quite often during the application process. But what does it mean, exactly?

A “balanced” college list is a list of colleges that not only meet a student’s top college priorities when it comes to what they are seeking in a college but also spans the range of admissions possibilities (the relative chance of being accepted at a particular college).

Admission chances are determined by the student’s academic profile (test scores & GPA) and the specific college’s selectivity and are used to attempt to predict a student's probability of admission (high chance, probable chance, low chance). A list that contains mostly selective or Ivy League colleges is an example of an unbalanced list. The general rule of thumb is to build a list that has 2-4 colleges from each admissions category.

There is no such thing as a crystal ball

It’s important to note that there are subjective factors that may be important to a college that are not included in this admissions chance categorization. A college’s institutional priorities and the student's character (as demonstrated by extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and the personal statement essay) are also important elements of the admissions equation and are not captured by test scores and GPA. So, while determining admission probability is helpful to ensure a list is balanced, it’s not a guarantee of an outcome.


What is an institutional priority? Sometimes referred to as "hooks," these are the specific characteristics a college is looking to have represented among the students in its freshman class. Some colleges may be seeking students from an underrepresented geographic region. Another college may need to round out its music program with an oboe player. Institutional priorities vary by college and are unique to each admissions year and applicant pool. Have you heard of a student with perfect grades and test scores who still didn't get accepted to a "target" college? It is likely that the college was focused on a particular priority that year -- one that the "perfect" student didn't possess. This is why it is so important to have a list of several "on paper" good fit schools on your list.


Admissions chances defined

High Chance of Admission (or likely chance of admission)

The student’s test scores, GPA, and/or class rank fall above the 75th percentile of the average admitted students and the college accepts more than 50% of its applicants.

Pro tip: Students in the top 25% of admitted freshmen are most likely to receive institutional merit aid.

Medium Chance of Admission (or Target or Probable)*

The student’s test scores, GPA, and/or class rank are relatively close to the majority of accepted students at the college (in the middle 50%). Often defined as a 50-50 chance of admission.

Low Chance of Admissions (Possible or Long shot) All schools with less than 10% admit rates).**

The student’s academic performance falls below the average of those who have been admitted in the past, but is still within reach, especially if the student’s unique circumstance or talent captures the attention of the admissions committee.


*If the school’s admissions rate is under 25%, it may not be a true High Chance school for many applicants, even those with well above average scores and other strong factors.

**Rule of thumb: Super selective schools with admission rates in the single digits will also be “long shot” schools regardless of the student’s academic profile. Why? Because it is impossible to know the internal mandates for the class they are trying to build for that particular year (e.g., they may be looking for better representation from Ohio, they may need female cyber engineers, or an oboe player, etc.).


Do not confuse selectivity with rigor -- some colleges are highly selective, yet the academic and intellectually curious student may not find them as rigorous as another college (UCLA compared to Lafayette) (Antonoff, Steven, 2019, A Student of Colleges, p193). Conversely, Arizona State is a target school for many students when it comes to admissions, yet students find their courses, once on campus, intellectually challenging and engaging.


A balanced list based on admission chances is critical, but the list should also be financially balanced. Here is a great description adapted from Road2College.

High Financial Fit are colleges that your family can afford with only federal student loans – or even without them – and your student has a high chance of being accepted.

Match Financial Fit schools are those where the net price calculator indicates your student is likely to get merit or other free aid. With that aid, along with only federal student loans, your family can afford to send your student there.

Low Financial Fit schools are colleges that you know you can’t afford to send your student to, but you’re willing to see if they offer a large amount of merit or need-based aid to make it affordable. Even if your student is awarded merit scholarships or need-based aid, your family may still need a private student loan from a lender like College Ave Student Loans as well. It may be your student’s dream school or a “brand name” school – but they need to understand that if the aid isn’t there, they can’t go!


Need help creating a balanced college list? I'm here to help!


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