Spring break is peak college-visiting time for juniors, and since it’s coming up, I figured I’d shift gears a little and talk about some “do’s” and “don’ts” for making a college list. One of the aspects of my job that I don’t usually spend a lot of time blogging about is the part that involves calming hysterical parents whose friends have been telling them that this year is the “most competitive year ever,” or horror stories about the kid who got a 2400 and still didn’t get into Harvard, or how things have changed so much from when they were applying to college that you can’t really count on getting in anywhere and have to apply a million schools just to be on the safe side.

When they tell me these things, I can hear the panic creep into their voices and see their eyes take on a slightly wild look.

Usually I just smile and nod.

Then I tell them that every single one of my students, many of whom were not straight-A students, has been accepted at at least one (well-known, selective) college that was a a great match for them and that they were very excited about attending.

I inform them some of these kids did not have top scores but still got into their first choice.

I also explain to them that a lot of schools have artificially deflated acceptance rates because the Common App allows people to apply anywhere the click of a button and $75 application fee, whether or not they’re genuinely interested in the school or even remotely competitive applicants — like, for example, my former student with a 25 ACT/1790 SAT and a B+ average whose mother insisted that he apply to a certain Ivy “just in case.”

Or the student who applied to the same Ivy with a solid but not great ACT score, despite the fact he had to wrack his brain trying to come up with a third book to put down for the question that asked him to list everything he’d read for pleasure over the last year. Note: if you’re having that much trouble answering simple questions on the supplement, it’s probably not a good match.

I see them trying very hard to reconcile what I’m saying with what everyone else has been telling them, and I can tell they’re not sure whether to believe me.

I don’t deny that it’s very competitive, nor do I deny that a lot of schools have become a lot more selective over the past few decades. It’s just that from what I’ve seen, it’s not nearly as bad as everyone thinks — provided, of course, that you’re applying to schools that are a good match for you, and where you actually have a decent chance of being accepted. That’s a crucial distinction, and if you pick your schools carefully, there’s no reason to apply to an outrageous number. (Like, say, 27, as the mother of one of my students insisted her son do a couple of years back.)

The reality is also that scores count, especially at schools that get thousands of applicants. A good rule of thumb is that if your scores are around the 50th percentile or above for that school, the decision will come down to other factors — academic, extracurricular, personal, and geographic. I’ve had students accepted to Harvard and Amherst with 2200 and 2070 respectively, and wait-listed at the University of Rochester with 2300. But if you’re going to apply to a super-selective school and don’t have some unusual quality that will make an admissions committee salivate over your application, you should at least be in the general range to make it worth the application fee.

Granted, in the spring of your junior year, it can be hard to tell what your scores will ultimately look like, but you do need to be realistic. If you’ve already taken the SAT or the ACT once and didn’t do as well you as you wanted or expected to, by all means take it again and see how high you can raise your scores. You should, however, also consider the possibility that they might not go up nearly as much as you want them to and not count on getting a 2300, or even a 2200. Lots and lots of things can happen when you go in to take the test for real, and there are no guarantees.

I’m not trying to say that you should abandon your lifelong dream of applying to Yale if you only had a 1950 the first time around, just that your preliminary college list probably shouldn’t look like this — especially if you’re from the Northeast:

Johns Hopkins
Boston University

That leaves exactly one school you have realistic chance of getting into (BU). If you’re applying for financial aid, you’re also cutting yourself off from a lot of schools that might offer you merit scholarships.

Instead, your list should probably look something like this:

University of Rochester
Boston University
George Washington
University of Wisconsin
University of Vermont/University of Delaware

That’s one super-duper reach, a bunch of realistics/low-reaches (assuming you have a high GPA), and a couple of backups to start looking at. That’s a *reasonable* list. If you do end up pulling your score way up, you can also add some more reaches later on, but you don’t want to set yourself up for disappointment. If you are visiting colleges, go and have fun, consider schools that maybe haven’t been on your radar, and focus on places you have a realistic chance of getting into. There are an awful lot of colleges out there, and you might be surprised at what you like.