Should You Apply to a Reach School?

Do you know what a reach school is?

Many parents and teenagers don’t understand what the term means. I discovered just how elusive a concept it is during college talks that I occasionally give at high schools and other settings.

When I ask, “Who knows what a reach school is?” I usually get only one or two people raising their hands.

Here’s why I’m bringing it up: Appreciating what reach schools are could end up saving your family thousands of dollars in college costs.

What’s a Reach School?

I’ll explain the potential savings shortly, but first the definition: A reach school is one where an applicant would usually face a remote chance of getting accepted. For instance, let us suppose a teenage boy, who has a 3.10 GPA and 1600 SAT on a 2400 scale, applies to a university where the typical applicant has earned a 3.75 GPA and a SAT score of 1920.

This school would be a reach for the teenager because most applicants enjoy a higher academic profile. If the teen gets in, it would be a reach.

Now you might be thinking, “What’s wrong with that?” If the teenager receives an acceptance letter, he beats the odds. I imagine that a lot of high school counselors believe this, too, which is probably why so many of them recommend that students include reach schools on their college search list.

Why Applying to a Reach School is Risky

I happen to believe that applying to reach schools, with some exceptions, is risky. Here’s why: Colleges and universities possess a finite amount of money for financial aid. Most schools can’t give handsome financial aid or merit aid to all the members of their incoming freshman class.

Since funds are limited, colleges typically reserve their so-called preferential financial aid packages to the students they really want. If you read marketing materials from colleges, however, you usually won’t get the sense that financial aid is heavily determined by a college’s excitement or lack of enthusiasm for an applicant. Financial aid realities are a topic that admission officers rarely broach with families.

The Real Deal About Financial Aid

To its credit, Muhlenberg College, a lovely liberal arts college in Allentown, Pa., is a rare institutions that is candid with families about how colleges parcel out financial aid. Here is an excerpt from The Real Deal About Financial Aid, posted on the college’s website:

If money is a factor in your college search and it will impact your final choice, you should make sure to apply to colleges where you are clearly in the top third to top quarter of the applicant pool.

If you are just squeaking in for admission, odds are your financial aid, if it comes to that, will be mostly aid you give yourself (i.e. loans or work).”

I’m sure most students don’t understand that they are jeopardizing their chances for financial aid by aiming too high.

Safely Applying to a Reach School

So who can apply to a reach school without getting hurt?

Rich students fall into this category. If a family has enough money to pay the full fare for college then applying to a reach school couldn’t hurt.

Schools that promise to meet 100% of every admitted student’s financial need also don’t pose a risk. Of course, the schools with these gold-plated policies, such as the Ivy League and other schools that are very high on U.S.News & World Report‘s rankings, are also incredibly difficult to crack.

Here’s the bottom line:

Be very careful before you apply to a reach school.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and a financial workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

 Read More at The College Solution:

Why Saving for College Won’t Hurt Your Chances for Financial Aid

What Colleges Have Your Major?

Anatomy of a Stingy College and a Generous One

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13 Responses to Should You Apply to a Reach School?

  1. Cristiana Quinn December 1, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    I am a big fan of Lynn’s blog, but with all due respect, I think it is important to point out that Lynn’s definition of a “reach” school is very different than how many school-based or independent counselors would define it. Many would say that a reach school is one where you have some chance of getting in (perhaps it is less than 30%, but not 5% or less). I would define the situation that Lynn is describing as a “longshot” or “out of range” (i.e. less than 5% chance). If a student wants to have one of these schools on their list, I would say “okay”. If they want to have 3-5 of them on the list, I feel it sets everyone up for disappointment. Obviously, recruited athletes or special talent students (musicians, artists, theatre kids) may be an exception if there is an audition process at a college or a coach pulling for them. Also, for some ivy league-level kids there may be exceptions to this at colleges that have single digit acceptance rates.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy December 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

      Hi Cristiana, What you write makes sense! Thanks for your contribution!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. Pamela November 27, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    What is the risk to which you refer? The cost of the admission application? It seems that if a student is not very interested in attending a particular school in which he/she is unlikely to be accepted, and could not afford even if he/she was, given projected financial aid, then the risk would be a waste of application time and expense. However, if a school with competitive admission is of much interest to and a good match for a student for various reasons, and the school has a no-loan policy and can offer decent grant aid, making the cost comparable to other schools, and paying for the admissions application is an affordable gamble, then why not apply?

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy November 28, 2011 at 1:00 am #

      I think students should apply to schools that they have a realistic chance of getting into because they have a better chance of getting an above average financial aid package or merit aid. You are right that if you need financial help and get into a no-loan school, you will receive the same kind of package that the top applicants get. That said, the no-loan schools are highly elite and the chances of getting into these reach schools are very slim. Do you want to waste your energy on applying to schools that almost certainly will reject you when you have only so much time to research schools, write supplemental essays, get even more teacher recommendations and do a great job of applying to schools?

      I can see what you’re saying, but I think students should refrain from using the application process as some sort of educational lottery.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. Pamela November 27, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    What is the risk to which you refer? The cost of the admission application? It seems that if a student is not very interested in attending a particular school in which he/she is unlikely to be accepted, and could not afford even if he/she was, given projected financial aid, then it would the risk would be a waste of application time and expense. However, if a school with competitive admission is of much interest to and a good match for a student for various reasons, and the school has a no-loan policy and can offer decent grant aid, making the cost comparable to other schools, and paying for the admissions application is an affordable gamble, then why not apply?

  4. Denise November 22, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    Hi Lynn,
    I agree that some academic reach is a good thing. I guess I was thinking more of the struggling barely “B” student in a school of academic whizzes. But then, I’m sure those other factors that create a good fit come into play, and whether there are other connections that can be made in extracurricular activities, the personality and culture of the student body.

    Denise

  5. Todd November 22, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    Good comment, Denise. Another thing that concerns me is the thought that there are some who would be “safe” applying to a reach school. By definition, even the wealthy student (family) is putting themselves in jeopardy of not making it through in 4 years… putting themselves in the position of being in the bottom quartile of admitted students still increases their probability of dropping out, transferring, failing to graduate in four years, being psychologically “beat down” by being “outrun and outgunned” academically by their classmates, etc.

    Unless a student has a real shot at academic success at their perceived reach school, it really doesn’t make sense for them to apply.

    Of course, the college will gladly accept a wealthy “reach” simply to get the revenue numbers up!

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy November 22, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

      Todd and Denise, I appreciate what you’re saying. There is some research, however, that suggests that students can perform well at schools that represent a bigger academic challenge. These students are spurred on to do well because their peers are focused on achieving.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  6. Denise November 22, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    Hi Lynn,
    It seems to me there might be another downside to the reach school: A mediocre student gets into a school with very high achieving students. How will that impact a student psychologically, the student’s confidence and sense of community? Always being at the bottom of the class,struggling to keep up with the curriculum, even the conversations in the dining halls — that has to be an issue.

    I can’t imagine many mediocre students succeeding and being happy in that environment. And even in small schools where there are opportunities for research with professors … is that mediocre student going to be selected, or have the confidence and background to do that kind of independent work?

    I think it still comes back to overall “fit” as you have mentioned many times — and a big part of that is financial.

    Denise

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