There are three tiers that every college list should have:
1. Reach
2. Match/Target/Fit
3. Safety

Reach Schools (your dream school/s)
Examples: Princeton University, Harvard University, MIT, Yale University, etc.
A reach school is one that is extremely competitive in terms of academics and admissions: it is one that will likely not admit you. Their acceptance rates are usually extremely low (less than 25% – Stanford’s acceptance rate is less than 5%!) and colleges usually consider students if the reported test scores fall between the average SAT/ACT ranges (for example, Princeton’s average SAT ranges are 710-780 and 720-790 for R&E and Math, respectively). This necessarily doesn’t mean that students with scores that fall below this range are not accepted. Most selective schools practice holistic review, where essays, recommendation letters, activities/extracurriculars, honors/awards, and additional information are heavily weighed, thus a strong application is needed. A ‘low’ standardized score is not an indication of one’s potential, thus admissions officers admit students that will be a ‘fit’ for their school.

Match/Target/Fit Schools
Examples: UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, University of Florida, etc.
A match school is one that is a right ‘fit’ for you. You are not guaranteed to be admitted, but a stronger application can allow you to stand out in the applicant pool. The acceptance rates for match schools are usually between 30-50%, and your grades and scores fall in the 50th percentile. It is possible to be rejected from match schools, so it is important to not highly estimate your chances of getting in. Match schools also practice holistic review and many also consider demonstrated interest (through attendance in college fairs, virtual information sessions, campus visits, etc.).
Note: Ivy League and other extremely competitive schools should never be match schools.

Safety Schools
Examples: Arizona State University, University of Vermont, University of Wyoming, etc.
Safety schools are ones that you know you have a good chance at getting accepted; these schools usually accept a majority of their applicants, thus their acceptance rates are above 55%. Community colleges should also be considered in this tier and there is a high in-state percentage (students matriculating at this school are usually in-state students). A lot of people choose not to apply to safety schools for a number of reasons. It’s important to note that a school’s reputation and prestige should not be factors you consider. Many students choose to start off at a safety school and then transfer to a match or reach school. This is an excellent option as it alleviates stress and pressure during the college application season, but also allows matriculating students to accumulate savings and save money.

Just because a school has a higher acceptance rate should not be an indication of poor academics – many ‘safety schools’ have an impressive faculty and plenty of resources that allow students to excel academically. Similarly, a ‘reach’ school with a low acceptance rate is not an indication of it being a ‘perfect’ school. When building a college list, it’s crucial to keep it balanced, have an open mind, and take into consideration a plethora of factors (click here to view factors that you should never forget when building a college list).