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College Admissions: Should You Apply to a Reach School?

For many high school seniors, November is the middle of college application season. A big question for many parents: which reach school should my teenager apply to?

But I have a different question for parents to consider: should your teenager apply to a reach school at all?

The Problems of the Reach School

In my practice, I refer to reach colleges as “red light” schools. I consider it to be a more apropos term. When we encourage an unreasonable reach school, we set up students for unnecessary disappointment and heartache. The term “reach,” indicates there might be something to reach for … and in many circumstances, it is clearly ill advised. Yet, naïve parents are encouraging their children to believe that the reach school is indeed quite possible, when we know the competition is stiff and spots extremely sparse.

I find it heartbreaking when teens put forth tremendous emotional effort into applications that will be cast aside for a myriad of reasons; test scores, lack of AP coursework, sliding grades. In my experience, parents who encourage that reach college are doing so for a personal agenda—bragging rights and something to discuss at the gym. In effect, these parents unwittingly exploit their own children in order to bolster their own self-esteem.

Realistically, we want to see students choose schools that represent the “green light, yellow light, red light” philosophy. Find wonderful colleges an universities where academic success is within reach and where confidence will soar with achievement and leadership. Look for “yellow light” schools that show promise when hard work and determination are characteristics of your teen. But be aware that yellow signifies caution; although your teen might get in, they will need to raise the bar in terms of personal performance in order to make the cut.

If there remains a personal reason for a “red light” application, then your senior should apply to the reach school. Most often times, admittance will be denied. So if your teen is wise to the reality and seems unaffected by the impending rejection, then reach away. But be wary of the teen who has been set up by parents who inflate their ego and allow them to believe it’s possible.

Which Colleges to Apply to: Do You Need a Reach College

How many schools should a student apply to? There is no magic number. The counselor and student should come to a decision after careful consideration. Relying on people who truly understand the system creates less dysfunction in the process. Most importantly, that “green light” school should be a favorite, a front-runner; the place your child will be thrilled to attend and most likely thrive. In my experience, most students end up at that “green light” school. It’s a sure thing, a comfort.

I maintain that the application process should be an exciting time. With proper management and careful, consistent preparation, it provides thrilling prospects for parents and teens alike. But I have to come to believe the premise of the “reach” school, for many young and impressionable teens, is best left alone. Find schools that offer a curriculum that fits well with your child’s interests and academic abilities, and one that will be rewarding without the stress of keeping up with insurmountable competition. We want our teens to feel competent and confident as they leave home for the first time.

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