Who should read this post: anybody applying to college in the United States of America in 2019-2020. The first part of this post will be pretty California-centric, but I also look at some information on the Ivy League and more application data on Harvard specifically. We still await a full data set on applications for this year’s applicants, who will enter college in this coming fall of 2019. This tends to come after those accepted actually show up to enroll in the fall, at which point universities can confirm their application yield, so it will be another 4-6 months before we have a complete picture of this year’s application data.
Overall, the tendency is for GPA and SAT/ACT score numbers to edge up incrementally (for GPA at about a tenth of a percent or less per year over the last 10 years for the U.C. and over the last 15 years at most Ivies). Keep that in mind with data from the fall of 2018. That said, let’s get to the process of creating a list of target schools.
How to Start an Application Target List
When you sit down to make a list of target colleges, it’s all about the D words: Dreams and Data. The data you start with includes GPA and test scores. Other data like total applications, admit rate, etc., matters, as does the information on your school that is available via Naviance, if your school has it, but it’s best not to start by trying to plug in all the data. It can be overwhelming.
Instead, always start that list on an aspirational note, with your dream schools. Once you have done that, you can list schools you have heard of that seem appealing. We assume that your dream opportunities are reaches, and you can decide later if it’s really worth the application fee and perhaps writing some essays. As you move on to schools that are not perhaps as dreamy but that still are appealing, you want to use data and research to create a target list with two more tiers. And at that point, you need to look at the data.
As a rule, in creating three tiers, the top tier of reach schools are those for which your data is below the average for admits, or for which any applicant, including those with a perfect GPA. is iffy (e.g. Stanford, Princeton, Harvard); the next tier, the “fit” schools should have targets for which you fit the average data profile. In all cases, this includes both GPA and standardized test scores (SAT/ACT). The last tier is safety schools, those for whom 75% or more of the people with your data were admitted.
There are more variables and nuances to creating a good list, but if you follow that approach, and split your applications relatively evenly into each category, you will end up with multiple acceptances. Note that when it comes to sorting the variables, you also want to separate holistic from objective schools–if the school is objective, the GPA and SAT/ACT averages are slightly better predictors. For an explanation of holistic vs. objective applications, and for an overview of how your college application will be evaluated, please see my post The Secret of College Admissions.
Data has to dominate the discussion once you have a rough list of schools. I most often find that when I sit down with clients–let’s assume a typical suburban, Northern California student for this example–they vaguely understand that it’s become a lot more difficult to get into name-brand colleges, and they may understand that a school like U.C. Berkeley has a high GPA average, but they are usually surprised when I tell them that the average GPA for Berkeley has been over 3.9 for several years now. That is over 3.9 unweighted.
This is obviously also true of UCLA, which had over 100,000 freshman applications last year, but then I have to explain that the same is true of U.C. Davis–in fact, Davis had a higher average GPA than Berkeley a few years ago, at 3.92 unweighted, while Berkeley downgraded their final GPA to 3.9 when they updated their numbers for yield in October of 2017. The details of these adjustments can be hard to dig up, but Berkeley made that adjustment after they determined yield in the fall–that is, were able to see who actually showed up to school after being offered admissions and then accepted it and moved into the dorm (there are those who accept and go elsewhere . . . ). My inferences is that they used the GPA not just for those admitted, but for those who actually showed up–their yield.
But still–these numbers represent a high wall to climb over. More specifically, these numbers mean that a typical California student who gets, say, 3 “B’s” in the a-g U.C. college prep classes in 10th and 11th grades, (and so likely has a 3.8 unweighted GPA), sees their chance of admissions to the top three UC’s at about 1 in 4. So if your dream schools include Berkeley, UCLA and you see Davis as a safety, and you have less than a 3.9 GPA, Davis is not a safety school. In fact, that would suggest that Santa Cruz is more a “fit” and that U.C. Riverside is a safety–or an “easy” fit.
As another number here, Riverside had a 3.66-4.09 weighted GPA for the 25th to 75th percentile of admitted students in fall of 2018.
When you are compiling data, know that the UC has a centralized set of data, but how that data has been presented has varied over time. Currently, the central UC data set is showing averages based on the 25th-75th percentile, but a couple of years ago, most UC’s presented as simple average. In addition, the current data set uses a weighted average. This is for the class that entered UC campuses in fall of 2018.
For other schools, your best bet to find firm data is to seek their Common Data Set–I will plug Harvard’s CDS below, just to give you a snapshot of the elite on the East Coast. You can continue to look these up for yourself for any other school you wish. The down side of this . . . . many hours of your life gone, sorting through 10-15 pages of data and checked boxes. That sums up one of my functions as a college advisor–saving you time, as well as making sense of what is to be found in the data. I have already done the leg work on this stuff.
Here is Harvard’s most recent, confirmed data set: Harvard Common Data Set.
If you search Harvard’s CDS using the term “GPA, “you will discover that Harvard’s average weighted GPA for fall of 2018 was 4.18. And don’t forget that this includes cohorts with below-average GPA’s–some prodigies who are great at one thing but not so great at others; some athletes; some whose parents endowed the university with a bunch of money to get their kid on the “Z List” or the “Dean’s List.” You know, like Jared Kushner, whose father kicked a large chunk of money Harvard’s way, ahead of Jared’s admit. (Seems pretty unfair, I know, but when the money is not a bribe per se, and in effect puts up new buildings, funds scholarships and programs . . . the good of helping many outweighs the evil of a single mediocre student being admitted. Most of the time. Unlike, say, those families who bribed officials through Mr. Singer-–a very different thing.
For those interested in more Ivy for this year, here is a link to early application data from the most recent application cycle–I will discuss creating an early app list in more detail later, but the date here is suggestive when considering who would be an early app from your dream tier of your target list: Early Ivy League Application Data for 2018-2019.
Returning to our California student, this all looks pretty discouraging, I know, but I would point out that what matters in the long term is a degree, and when it comes to your degree, the words “University of California” have more meaning than “Berkeley” or “Santa Cruz”–particularly to employers.
And continuing with our list, let us also assume this 3.8 range California student is interested in medicine. In addition to expanding this list from reach schools that include Berkeley, UCLA and Davis, I would add Santa Cruz and Riverside, and throw in Santa Barbara. With decent essays, I would expect at least two admits there. But I would also expand, if the budget allows it, out of state. Plan to add 15 thousand to your total costs, at a minimum, when you look out of state. That is per year. Most of that will be additional tuition costs.
So before looking out of state for my pre-med California applicant, I would add two-three Cal State campuses, then, if the ca. 45-60 thousand-dollar cost of going out of state is acceptable, look at the University of Washington, Arizona State (which would offer a tuition deal to most California students that would make tuition much cheaper), focusing on its Barrett Honors College and Polytechnic campus, and possibly add Oregon State and U Colorado. One or two smaller, private liberal arts campuses, inside California or outside, might round out the list–though we’d be bumping up to a ceiling at 14-15 applications.
At this point, you start looking at the application work load, including how many application essays are needed and how many of these can be reused in whole or part.
And then you should start writing essays. Now is better than August or September. Summer will be over in 8 weeks for many of you (It is June 20th as I write this), and high school coursework, athletics and activities together with doing applications can be truly overwhelming. Get some essays done sooner rather than later. I will be posting a set of the important prompts that are available now in a day or so.
Until then, be well and do good research.