Mark is a highly accomplished senior with excellent grades and stratospheric test scores.  He recalls a friend of similar class rank who was admitted into Princeton just last year, and as a consequence, believes that admission into an Ivy League school is a virtual lock.  He decides to apply to all 8 Ivy League institutions, and at the suggestion of a family friend, also submits applications to the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary—Mark considers these three colleges to be his “safety” schools, despite their excellent reputation and competitive admissions process, especially for out-of-state students.

April arrives and Mark is dismayed to learn that he is denied admission at each Ivy League school, and is also waitlisted at UNC, a university with an average SAT score well below his.   Although Mark is admitted into UVA and William & Mary, he soon discovers that both schools are prohibitively expensive for out-of-state students.  As high school graduation nears, Mark is scrambling to find a list of colleges still accepting applications, and dreams of donning Tar Heel blue and white—colors that didn’t seem all that attractive only a few months ago.

Lesson #1:  No matter your background or credentials, never assume admission into an Ivy League institution.  These schools receive applications from many more top-notch students than they are able to admit, so unless you’re an Olympic athlete with flawless academic credentials or the child of a U.S. president, there are no guarantees.  Always expand your list of prospective schools to include colleges outside of the Ivy League.

Lesson #2: Earning entrance into out-of-state public colleges and universities can be more difficult than you think.   Several reputable institutions have admissions policies that overwhelmingly favor in-state residents, and as a result, reject a high number of elite, out-of-state residents every year.  It is not uncommon for students to earn admission into a college like Penn, Cornell or Wash U. and be denied admission at universities like UVA, UNC or UC-Berkeley.  Therefore, prior to finalizing your college list and regardless of your academic background, check to see if the public schools on your “safety” list give admission preference to in-state students.

Lesson #3: Every college list should include at least 2-to-3 “safety” schools, where you are very likely to be admitted and which you can afford.  Remember, your “safety” schools are not safe if there exist factors that may ultimately prevent your enrollment, whether personal, financial or admissions-related.  Make sure your list of prospective schools includes institutions that are accessible, affordable and truly desirable.

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.