US College Guide Part #3: Building A School List

US College Guide Part 3: Building A School List

Let’s say you have narrowed in on subjects you want to explore, and you have a list of schools that are strong in these areas. There are some additional things to consider, besides just a school’s strength in specific academic areas. For some applicants, overall prestige may matter quite a lot. Others may prioritize location, culture/lifestyle, school/class size, sports, and/or specific extracurricular opportunities.

 But there’s also the matter of getting admitted in the first place; if your profile is strong in every area, the sky is the limit in terms of selecting ‘reach schools’ (schools that will be very difficult to get into), but you’ll still want to include some ‘target schools’ (good fits) and safe schools (schools that you very likely to get into). Here are some things that can help you decide what is a reach, target, and safer school.

International versus domestic applicant

If you happen to be an international applicant, keep in mind that you would usually want to have scores above the average scores at whichever universities you’re considering. This is because a university might have only 15-20 percent of its seats available to international applicants, which makes the competition more intense for international applicants.

SAT or ACT score

A standardized test score is optional this year, but having a strong one can help you stand out, compensate for sub-par grades, and better position you to compete against students who do have this additional credential.

  • Do note that some schools, such as the UCs, will not even consider these scores. However, most universities will consider an SAT or ACT score, even though it is optional.
  • If you’re in Singapore, keep in mind that many applicants in Singapore have taken at least one of these tests. On the other hand, if you’re in a location where COVID has made it very difficult for students to take these tests, your most direct competition is less likely to have these scores, which makes it less expected that you would have them.
  • Relatedly, the number of applications to many competitive US schools shot up for 2021 intake, perhaps in part because an SAT/ACT test requirement did not keep anyone from applying, as it had done in previous years. As we expect a similar situation for 2022 intake, you may want to err more on the side of caution as you make your school list.

GPA / grades

Most Top 100 US schools have very high GPAs, but plenty of students get into good schools without the best grades.

  • If your grades are not great, it is important to compensate with other academic achievements. As you shortlist schools, you can check the average GPA at each school you’re considering. If you’re doing IB or A Levels, you will likely need to convert to GPA so that you can see if you’re roughly in range.
  • If there are other things in your profile that interest a university (for example, you started your own business, you had a management role in an internship, you did research with a university professor, you’re a published author, your artwork has won international recognition, etc.), they may overlook slightly lower grades.


Awards at various levels – international, national, city, school, etc.

Generally speaking, a school award will not hold as much weight as an award that involved more competitors (national / international level). Relatedly, do keep track of your achievements! If you can’t name the specific awards or competitions, or if you’ve simply forgotten about them, your efforts will not have been maximized.

Sport or performing art

More competitive US schools would expect applicants to have at least one of these. Whether you competed with your school or outside of school, or if it has just been a long-term hobby for you, a sport or performing art can be very helpful and would indicate to the school that you might contribute to them in a similar way (through a student club, intramurals, etc).

Interesting life experiences

Through certain experiences, you might have gained some important learning lessons and a unique perspective. Such experiences can help universities understand you as well as how you might contribute to them.

Foreign languages

Students would be expected to know at least one language other than English, but if you happen to be a student who knows several languages, that can be something that helps you stand out. Try to get an accreditation of some kind if possible.


This is one of the things that can greatly compensate for other profile gaps. If you’ve held positions of leadership and a great deal of responsibility (managing others, creating or launching projects, expanding a program to other countries, organizing large-scale events, teaching, etc), be sure to highlight that, and you can make your school list a bit more ambitious than you would if you just went by the average SAT and average GPA.

Volunteering and other activities

US universities are interested in students who want to help others and who will drive change, but this is especially important at the more competitive schools. For some, it’s very much a part of their fit assessment.

  • Coupling leadership and volunteering is helpful in that sense, but in any case, sustained volunteering over a period of time is usually expected. If you’re volunteering sporadically (a few days here, a few days there, at different organizations and for many different causes), try to find some aspect of your volunteering that you can focus on and really bring to the next level, as this can contribute to the strength of your overall profile.
  • If you don’t have much volunteering at all (or work experience that shows your passion for service), you may want to be more conservative as you select schools.

Overall, selecting a major and school list can be done in many ways, but you’ll set yourself up for the best outcomes by identifying your priorities, learning about different majors, researching schools, and analyzing the strength of your profile against the larger applicant pool as well as strengthening your profile for as long as you have time to do so.

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