Every year around this time, posts inevitably appear on College Confidential that go something like this:

I applied to every Ivy, Stanford, MIT, Duke, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Nebraska, and I got rejected everywhere except my safety school. I have a 4.5 GPA, 35 ACT, and good activities. wasn’t sure about HYPSM, but I thought I was totally set for Northwestern and Hopkins. What do I do???? Help!!!!

This year, there’s a whole long thread on the Parents Forum entitled “Why applicants overreach and are disappointed in April,” and I would strongly encourage anyone just beginning the college search to read through it, before the madness sets in and you fall in love (or your child falls in love) with a school that accepts only 5% of its applicants.

That is, 5% overall — the RD admission rate might in reality be closer to 2%.

As a lot of CC posters have pointed out, there really are no “match” schools for students in this category. The most selective schools have single-digit acceptance rates, making them a crapshoot for all but the most spectacular (or most effectively packaged) applicants, and the marginally less selective ones are sufficiently concerned about yield protection (i.e., “Tufts syndrome”) that they’re hardly a guarantee for high-stats applicants either — particularly ones who don’t attend feeder schools, apply early, or receive significant guidance about how to stand out.

So here’s a little reality check:

In the last few years, admissions have gotten really, really competitive, in ways that people who applied to college in the 1980s (or even the 1990s) not infrequently have trouble wrapping their heads around.

The fact that some schools are now rejecting upwards of 95% of their applicants does not mean that a school with a marginally higher acceptance rate can be considered a safety. A 16% acceptance rate might look high compared to a 5% one, but a school that accepts 16% of its applicants still rejects 84% of them, and you cannot assume you won’t be one of them.

In other words, Northwestern (8.4%) may have been a backup school in 1985, but it’s not anymore.

And Northeastern (27%) may have been a backup school in 1995, but it’s not anymore either.

Furthermore, just throwing in as many apps as possible to competitive schools won’t by itself raise your chances either. Applying to 10 schools with sub-15% admit rates does not necessarily mean that you’ll be accepted to one.

Yes, sometimes the essays or the recommendations are a little lackluster (high grades and scores are a baseline requirement, not a golden ticket); sometimes the extracurriculars aren’t nearly as spectacular as they could have been.

But sometimes there are just too many (thousands of) applicants and not enough places in the freshman class. Sometimes there just isn’t room.

Alas, this is what the online Common App hath wrought.

So when you make a college list, you need to make sure it’s balanced: a few well-chosen reaches with acceptance rates in the 5-25% range; a few matches in the 25-50% range; and a few safeties that accept 50+% of their applicants, that you can afford, and where your scores fall above the 75th percentile.

Ideally, you should have compelling reasons for applying to every single one of the schools on your list, and genuinely be willing to attend. If you can’t even explain to your parents or friends why you want to attend the University of X, you certainly won’t be able to explain it to an admissions committee. Provided you clear the basic hurdles, enthusiasm does count…usually, at least.