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College Talk Blog

Why do some teens aim higher than they are ready to fly?

A phenomenon that frustrates counselors and parents each fall is students choosing college application targets with metrics (gpa and test scores) way beyond where they are at present. The reasons this occurs has to do with limited student awareness of requirements, the level of maturity of the student and the fact that students sometimes make choices that are not realistic to rebel against adults who they feel are trying to keep them from making their own decisions.

Of the students I advise each year, only about 5% choose to apply to colleges that are an extreme reach for them. Most students have one to a few reach schools on their list of planned college applications. Reach schools are schools that are possible but for which the student has metrics a little below what that college requires. Extreme reach schools are schools for which students have a gpa that is nearly a letter grade below what is required or 300 SAT points or 7 ACT points below what is recommended or who is in a decile or quartile of class rank far behind what is recommended by a college.

Although most students give themselves less credit than they deserve in terms of estimating their chances of acceptance, the less mature student pays less attention to metrics. Such students are often more concerned about the social, athletic and amenity aspects of a college than their chances of academic success at that college. The best approach with the less mature student is to allow them to apply to their unrealistic college target and provide them with other more realistic targets so that they will have one or more college acceptances from which to choose. Not being accepted at the extreme reach college, has some benefits: 1) the benefit of keeping the student away from a college where the student is unlikely to do well and 2) the benefit of a dose of reality. The reality is, if they want to go to that college, they will have to work hard at one of the colleges where they have been accepted in order to transfer successfully to the extreme reach college. In that sense, a rejection letter could actually be a motivator to do well as a freshman.

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