Why You Need To Diversify Your College List

Steve Palley, co-founder and CEO of ApplyMap

Steve Palley, co-founder and CEO of ApplyMap

If you and your student are having trouble forming a college list, read this guest post! Steve Palley CEO/co-founder of ApplyMap aims to simplify the college search process by employing advanced statistics and social science. He shows us the statistician approach to use math and statistical thinking to find colleges with the best chance of student success. Take it away Steve.

Practically every parent has explained to their child why putting all of one’s eggs in a single basket is a bad idea. Most parents who are active on the stock market know not to put their money into just a few big-name stocks, too. But too many forget the power of diversification when helping their teenaged son or daughter with their college lists — even though it may be the single most important step in the whole college application process.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: sure, the college list is important, but more important than grades, test scores, the essay, and even financial aid?! Absolutely yes. Let me explain.

Picking the right colleges to apply to is the most important step because it’s the first step. Everything else you and your teen will do during the college application process — and beyond — depends on it.

As a statistician who specializes in analyzing college admissions, I think about the problem like this. When all is said and done (and assuming they don’t transfer), your teen will attend exactly one college or university. What’s the absolute best-case scenario? He or she will be:

  1. Graduated in four years or less;

  2. Happy, healthy, and with great job prospects;

  3. Bearing little to no debt.

Those are our goals. Now, working backwards from there, what combination of steps should we take to maximize the likelihood of this outcome? We live in an uncertain world so there are no guarantees, but we can certainly do things to make it more probable given the information we have today.

Well, if you want your teen to get his or her degree on time and debt-free, with a great idea of what they want to do next AND the skills and connections to make it happen, they should go to the school where they’ll do the best. Duh. End of article.

Just kidding. How do we know where your son or daughter will have the best overall college experience (or as many parents and the Obama Administration now think about it, the best college experience given the cost)? Again, we can’t know for sure, because a young person maturing into an adult is a very complex system. Neither they nor we have a clear idea of what is best for them to begin with, and it’s a moving target anyway given how much young people change in college.

So, we need to make some educated guesses based on what little we do know. Graduates from Top 10 schools tend to be very well connected, but it’s hard to gain admission. Flagship public universities can deliver tremendous bang for the buck, but on-time graduation rates are lower. Smaller liberal arts colleges can deliver a totally unique educational experience, but they can also cost a pretty penny.

The bad news is that with all of this in mind, it’s effectively impossible to identify the single best school for your teen to attend. The good news is that trying to do that is a waste of time anyway, because applying to a single school is a very poor strategy. If you apply to a single selective school, you might not get in; if you apply to a single non-selective school, you could almost certainly do better.

Your teen should apply to at least eight schools that make sense both individually (meaning that your teen would do well there) and collectively (meaning that each school fits together into a larger strategy). This, finally, is where college list diversification comes into play. A properly balanced list can virtually guarantee that your teen will have a solid college experience, but building one isn’t easy.

Suppose your teen got sick of all this college talk and simply applied to all eight Ivies, Stanford and MIT. That’s not an optimal strategy for two reasons. First, there’s a real chance they won’t get into any of those schools (about 15% with a 4.0 unweighted GPA and a 2200 on the SATs). Second, those are all fantastic schools, but would one randomly-selected school from that list be better for your teen than every other school outside of it? Probably not.

OK, so why not expand that list of top schools to 20 or even 30? Now you have two more issues. First, the more schools they apply to, the more choices they’ll have, but that’s a problem in itself. In fact, having too many choices is often more stressful than having too few, and you’ll still be flying blind as far as college fit goes. Second, nobody wants to apply to that many schools. There’s no better way to make your teen hate your guts.

Mathematically, the perfect college list looks something like this: two dream schools, four reach schools, four match schools, and two safety schools (the classic bell curve shape) — and every school on the list, regardless of selectivity, is a good fit for your teen. If you’ve done it right, your son or daughter will have three to five great options to choose from, and they will fall in love with one of them after visiting.

Now you see how a little statistical thinking can go a long way in the college applications game!


Steve Palley is an entrepreneur, academic, and educator. He is the co-founder and CEO of ApplyMap, a new website that builds statistically balanced college lists, as well as a graduate student at UCLA.