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How to Create Your College List

January 28, 2022 by Veritas Essays Team | How To, Applications, College List

With over 3,982 degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to crafting your college list.

Some of the most common questions we get from students are:

  1. How many schools should I apply to?
  2. How do I know if a school counts as a safety, target, or reach for me?
  3. How can I use my college list to increase my chances of getting into the right school for myself?

In this blog post, we cover all of these questions and give you the inside scoop on constructing the optimal college list that allows you to aim for your dream schools while still providing plenty of solid options as a Plan B.

Many people refer to admissions to top universities as a “crapshoot.”

This term refers to people wagering money on an unpredictable dice roll.

While it’s true that there is never any guarantee of admission to top universities, it’s a little more nuanced than random chance. You can certainly stack the deck in your favor by writing better essays, getting good recommendation letters, and getting good grades.

But even the best student is not guaranteed admission to her top school, and thus you need to use your college list to “hedge” against the risk of rejection at top schools.

A well-crafted college list should provide you with a strong balance of safety, target, and reach schools. This ensures you will have at least a few options for college that you’ll be happy with regardless of how the admissions process goes.

Before we explain how to craft a college list out of these three types of schools, we’ll first define each of them below.

1. What is a Safety School?

In a broad sense, safety schools are schools where you are highly likely to be admitted given your academic and extracurricular qualifications.

Your GPA should be well above that of the average admitted student, and your ACT/SAT score should be above the average for the school as well.

While the overall admissions rate for a safety school can vary widely, a school with an admissions rate below 20% should never be considered a safety school regardless of the academic standing of the student, as many highly-qualified students will be applying every year.

2. What is a Target School?

Target schools are colleges where you are directly on par with the average admitted student’s grades, GPA, test scores, etc. It’s not guaranteed that you will be admitted, but the odds look good (although slightly less promising than your safety schools).

These schools should be at least as good as a coin flip in terms of whether you expect to get in or not.

3. What is a Reach School?

This category is where Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and other high-ranking colleges would fall in your college list. Reach schools are schools with highly selective admissions rates.

What will be considered selective for you will vary depending on your academic credentials – a 25% acceptance rate could be a reach for some students and a 10% acceptance rate could be a reach for others.

How to Craft Your College List

When bucketing schools into these three categories, pay most attention to the school’s acceptance rate, average admitted students’ GPA, and average admitted student’s test scores (e.g., SAT/ACT). These statistics will give you the clearest, most quantitative sense of how competitive the applicant pool will be, and how you might stack up against the other candidates.

Your college list should be a balance of schools within each of these three categories; the exact number of each depends on how many schools you are applying to, and how happy you’d be getting into your safety v. target v. reach options.

So how many schools should you apply to?

The answer depends on the student but it is generally advisable to apply to between 12-15 schools in total.

When crafting your college list, it is important to keep in mind that you may have to write numerous supplemental essays for each school to which you choose to apply, so make sure to choose wisely!

It is far better to send in 12 high quality applications than to send in 15 weaker ones.

As an example, let’s say you choose to apply to 12 schools with a 3.8 GPA, a 1450 SAT, and a decent amount of extracurricular involvement. Then your college list might look something like the following:


  • Arizona State University (ASU)
  • University of Alabama
  • Louisiana State University (LSU)
  • Washington State University


  • Middlebury College
  • Lehigh University
  • Lewis & Clark College
  • New York University (NYU)


  • UCLA
  • Princeton
  • University of Washington
  • Cornell

Keep in mind that this is just an example and should not be considered a suggestion as to where you should apply yourself!

Regardless of which particular schools you decide to bucket into the safety/target/reach categories for yourself, you should put significant time into researching each school’s program offerings and the unique opportunities available at each.

While statistics such as acceptance rate, average GPA, and average test scores can give you vital information on your chances of acceptance to a particular school, the most important consideration is that you will actually want to attend the school if you get in. If you’ve done your college list right, then you’ll be happy wherever you end up!

How to Ace the “Why Our School?” Essay Question

January 10, 2022 by Veritas Essays Team | Essays, Admissions, Examples, Yale, Why Us?

Whether you have been dreaming about attending a particular university for years or just discovered a college's program offerings on Google, one of the most popular application essay questions that stumps students is:

"Why do you want to attend our school?"

There are several challenges with the "Why Us?" essay question:

  • How do you answer this question in a way that doesn’t just regurgitate facts about the school that the admissions officer already knows?
  • How do you avoid coming across as insincere or adulating while still sounding impressed and enthusiastic about the school?
  • How do I make an essay that is putatively about a school an essay about myself?

This can be a tough balance to strike, especially when you consider that an admissions officer will read through hundreds of similar essays over the span of a couple months.

However, with a bit of research and thoughtful reflection, you can be well on your way to a successful essay!

In this blog post, we will outline four key strategies to better demonstrate your unique appreciation of a particular university and to showcase the distinctive contributions that you will make to its community.

Let’s say you’re applying to a popular university, which we’ll refer to as College X.

Trophy A picture of a hypothetical College X (can you guess what school this actually is?)

If there's only one thing that you take away from the rest of this article, it's this:

Remember that you are applying to College X out of hundreds of alternative schools because there is something (or likely several things) that makes College X stand out from every other college for a student with your unique background and interests.

We will tackle this question by identifying and making a list of all the unique aspects of College X (again, emphasis on features that are unique to College X) that draw you to the school. This list will be a good starting place for your essay.

Your essay should delve into these four major areas:

  1. Path of study/major
  2. Interests outside of the classroom
  3. Giving back to the school community
  4. General campus culture

1. Path of study/major

You should have a clear idea of what aspects of College X’s academic program you will explore.

Note: Even if you are totally undecided as to what your major will be, you still need to have some idea of what you want to study. List a couple of fields that you’d like to explore in lieu of having a specific major chosen.

For example, maybe you are interested in public policy and you have heard great things College X’s School of Global Affairs .

Instead of simply stating that you are interested in this particular department of College X, you first need to do some deeper research into the courses and special programs offered by this department.

You must be aware of the current professors on the faculty if the department and the unique opportunities available for student involvement.

This can take the form of any of the following (I've done this exercise for College X's School of Global Affairs below):

  1. Summer/term-time research programs ( Example )
  2. Student clubs advised by faculty in the department ( Example )
  3. Publications or newsletters published by the department ( Example )
  4. Affiliated institutes or research centers ( Example )
  5. Majors, joint majors, minors, or certificates ( Example )
  6. Special concentrations or focus fields ( Example )
  7. Famous courses or faculty ( Example )
  8. Unique programs, initiatives, or fellowships ( Example )
  9. Post-graduate opportunities ( Example )
  10. Traditions or community culture ( Example )
  11. Study abroad, summer programs, or internship opportunities ( Example )
  12. Events hosted by the department ( Example )
  13. Community service trips
  14. Industry affiliations
  15. Capstone projects
  16. ...and more!

It is important that the specific offerings that you mention are not things that you could have pulled together by simply skimming the university home page for five minutes.

After reading through tens of thousands of applications, admissions officers can quickly distinguish between a student who has taken the time to understand their school and write a thoughtful answer and a student who simply sprinted through the question without much forethought.


2. Interests outside of the classroom

Since you will undoubtedly find yourself with some free time in college, it is important that College X knows that you will use this free time to do something other than sitting in your dorm and watching TV.

You need to show that you are a student who will not simply treat life as a 24/7 academic-a-thon, but will rather be proactive outside of class to get involved on campus and participant in student activities or groups in some way.

If you are interested in pursuing your current high school extracurriculars in college (e.g. through a debate team or a club/intramural soccer team or a cultural affinity group), then you should let the admissions committee know!

Again, this question is a great opportunity for you to do some background research and learn more about what College X offers that could keep you busy and happy outside of academics.

Most schools have a list of officially recognized student groups , so definitely do some digging to try to find this online. If you can’t find any such list on College X’s website, then reach out to a current student to get the scoop!

Another great place to find extracurriculars is to go to College X’s student newspaper .

There, you’ll likely find a ton of articles describing on-campus events and activities and general goings-on, which can be a great source of information as to what students are up to outside of class.


3. Giving back to the school community

Universities value students who have a sincere desire to give back to their community.

This may be a cliché, but it’s only a cliché because it’s true:

You will learn more from your peers in college than from any of your classes/professors/textbooks.

And you will be one of those peers to someone else!

But you can’t be a positive part of someone else’s college experience if you never leave your dorm.

College X wants to know that you’ll not just acquire things from it (knowledge, housing, food, a degree), but also that you’ll give back.

College X is greedy – sure, it wants to educate the youth.

But College X primarily wants to make College X better, and so you need to demonstrate how admitting you will make College X a better place.

There are countless ways to give back to the broader school community.

Involving yourself in student organizations (as detailed above) is one way.

Doing community service is another great way to contribute to campus life or to College X’s surrounding community.

Many colleges are located in urban areas or smaller suburbs that revolve around the college (these are known as "college towns"). Thus, there is usually a broader neighboring community that the college will interact with and sponsor community service projects within.

Whether it's through Habitat for Humanity or service outings or business programs that seek to involve traditionally underrepresented people, find out how you can weave your skills and knowledge into an activity or organization that is of service.


4. General campus culture

Each school has its own culture, and College X is no exception.

This essay is the one place in your application where an admissions officer can essentially directly ask you whether you understand College X’s culture and how you might fit in.

When addressing this point, it can be helpful to first read through College X’s mission statement (to get a sense of the administration’s vision for the school).

Next, skim through a few student publications (to get a condensed impression of how students view the school and each other), like undergraduate research journals , public policy reviews , scientific essays , creative magazines or international policy reviews

Finally, if you get the chance, I highly recommend that you talk to current students about their experiences (to get a true sense of how students view the school and each other).


By structuring your essay to include these four topics and doing the requisite background research for each point, you should now be ready to produce a compelling, well-rounded answer to the question "Why do you want to attend our school?"

An answer that demonstrates that you have spent a significant amount of time seriously considering how your interests match the offerings of the school, and why you are a uniquely great fit for the school given the contributions that you will make to campus life.

If you would like additional advice on your college essays or are looking for more personalized guidance in your writing process, feel free to submit your essays for review here .

Or, click here to make a free appointment with one of our qualified Ivy League essay mentors to learn how we can provide 1-on-1 mentorship for your applications!