The Hazards of Applying To a Reach School

Last Updated Sep 19, 2011 5:23 PM EDT

Is your child planning on applying to any reach schools?
High school counselors love to tell teenagers to include some reach schools on their lists, but for many students this can be a dangerous strategy. Before I explain why, here's the definition of a reach school:

A college is characterized as a reach school if a student's academic profile is below the average students who attend the school. For instance, if the average GPA for freshmen at a school is 3.7 with an average 1900 SAT score and an applicant's GPA is 3.25 and SAT score is 1600, this would qualify as a reach school.

The Hazards of Reach Schools

There is nothing wrong with aiming high unless you're worried about paying for college and unfortunately most families fall into this category. Students who barely get into reach schools will often not receive attractive financial aid packages or merit awards. In fact, they may only get an aid package stuffed with loans.

Why does this happen? Colleges have a finite amount of money to award to freshmen applicants so they typically reserve their best offers to the high school seniors that they covet the most.

Beware of Gapping

If your child isn't in the top 25% to 33% of a college's applicant pool, he or she is more likely to be gapped. When gapping occurs, the school accepts the student, but the financial aid or scholarship award can be so inadequate that the applicant will usually attend a different school.

In some cases, the gap between what a family can afford and what the school offers can be tens of thousands of dollars. Often the students in this category are middle- and low-income students who are in the bottom half academically of the accepted students.

Reach School Exceptions

There are at least two circumstances when getting into a reach school may not hurt your chances for financial aid.

A few dozen of the nation's most elite schools will routinely meet the financial aid need of any of its accepted students with grants rather than loans. Your child could be the last kid accepted into a school like Princeton or Williams College, but you would not be penalized financially.

Here's another exception: Some private schools actively pursue minority students to help diversify their campuses. These schools can provide attractive financial aid packages to minority applicants even if their academic profiles aren't as strong as the majority of accepted students.

Bottom Line:

If you want to capture the best financial awards from a college, it's important to apply to schools that represent good academic matches. If you reach for the moon, be prepared to pay a high price.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and Shrinking the Cost of College workbook. She also writes her own college blog at The College Solution.

Read More on The College Solution:

Where Professors Send Their Children to College
25 Private Colleges With the Best Graduation Rates
25 Facts About Today's College Freshmen
Reach school image by yorkville. CC 2.0.

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