How to not only find but LOVE your likely school. More options, less stress.

Likely school, otherwise known as your safety school. The school that you know you should get admitted to. The school that balances your college list so that at the end of the admission cycle you have options. Options are good, right? Of course! But when a likely school means applying to a college just to get in and not one you would actually consider attending you’re limiting yourself.

Before diving into how to find your likely schools, let’s talk about what makes a school “good”? Your future success can be very much defined by your experience within your undergraduate studies. Experiences like the following:

  • The professors you meet that connect you to a research opportunity or an internship.
  • The support services that give you the tools to dive into difficult topics and reach higher levels of coursework.
  • A social environment that allows you to feel comfortable, but also exposes you to new experiences and helps you grow in your perspectives and connections.
  • The club you join that breeds a network of peers someday you may go into business with.
  • A school that offers an in-depth program into what you want to study. Just a few of the many characteristics that help you in carving an incredible path to success post-graduation.

These are what makes a school “good.” Positioning yourself in an institution that offers the programming you want to study, academic and social support and is financially affordable.

How do you know if I’m “likely” to get in?

  • You are higher than the average academic profile admitted (GPA and test scores), comfortably higher than the middle 50% averages
  • Consider admission rate
    • If you’re in the top percentile or over the averages and the college accepts more than 60% this could be a likely school for you! Look at the selectivity of a college. A university accepting less than 25% of its applicants is not a likely option. 

How do I find my likely colleges?

Let’s be real. Your likely school should be one you actually like. It’s best to put some time into the search process and with the internet at your fingertips, you are in luck! Follow these steps.

  1. Define your needs, wants and values in the following categories
    • Academics Think programs and learning environment. What major or majors are you looking for? What type of learning environment would you thrive in? (Ex: small classrooms, tutoring, support services, open-curriculum, ability to major across disciplines, etc.)
    • Social environment (Big, small, clubs on campus, Greek life, no Greek life at all, sports, access to what’s around you, museums, discounted tickets to local shows, dorms on campus, etc.). Location (Ex: urban, close to a city, college town, rural) 
    • Financial (Merit-based scholarships, need-based aid, average number of years it takes to graduate, return on investment, career services on campus that connect you to networking, mentorship and opportunities for potential higher earnings)
  2. Have your academic profile handy, a.k.a a transcript and your most recent test scores to check the averages
  3. Get online and start researching! 

Amazing online resources: Use multiple online sources to start researching your needs, wants and values and cross-reference the sites. If you start to see a college that pops up on a number of lists and search engines because it meets your criteria, it’s worth checking out. Here’s a few to get you started.

  • Collegexpress: An incredibly user friendly website that has lists and rankings on colleges on just about everything. The lists and rankings are more student-centered. For example, search things like “Colleges with small student-faculty ratios” and “Colleges for the art student that doesn’t want to go to an art college” Search by major, learning environment, student experience and more!
  • UnigoThink of this as a “yelp” for college. Just like Yelp, colleges are reviewed on a first-hand experience from the students who have attended or are attending the institution. So while all colleges may seem to sound the same (i.e. clubs, Greek life, access to professors, sports teams, research and study abroad opportunities, etc.) Unigo lets students explore the “vibe” of a campus, the stereotypes, food and dorm ratings, campus facilities, ratings for nearby shops, extracurricular activities, off-campus housing and more. As with Yelp I caution students to read multiple reviews to get a bigger picture.
  • Google maps: This one might seem out of place, but I promise it’s a powerful tool. It can be hard to have faith that a college is a good “fit” for you when have never visited the campus. Google maps has the amazing ability to help create a vision of not just the campus, but its surroundings. Put the university in the search engine and zoom out a little. What do you see? Museums? Mountains? Access to a metro station that takes you into town? Where is the closest airport? What is the population of the town around campus? What does the closest town have? Google maps can help paint a bigger picture, use it and explore.
  • Snapchat: A TON of colleges are on Snapchat. It’s actually a really cool way to explore a day in the life of a student on that campus.
  • Fiske Guide: Order on Amazon, or pop by your counselor’s office and sift through in-depth profiles.
  • YouVisit: Not every college is on You Visit but quite a large amount are and it is a wonderful resource. YouVisit allows you the opportunity to take a virtual tour of campus and here from a recorded tour guide. Take a tour of the science facilities, learn more specific facts about a brand new gym and just explore a little more. It can be tough to decide where to take a college tour and you may not get to travel all over, but this is a free accessible resource as your fingertips.
  • Western Undergraduate Exchange: The Western Undergraduate Exchange is an amazing resource to search for affordable out-of-state options. A lot of my families will automatically take an out-of-state school off the table purely because of cost. The initial “sticker price” of tuition can be shocking, especially out of state. Western Undergraduate Exchange offers a list of colleges in various Western states who offer a reduced tuition rate to qualifying neighboring states. All my California students, that means you.
  • College Navigator: Search for colleges and find in-depth information about typical financial aid packages awarded.


Disclaimer: There are a NUMBER of online searches and resources available. Check the source of the website and cross-reference sites to get a more accurate depiction. Always go directly on the colleges website to get the most accurate data. You can search for a college’s Freshman Admission Profile or the Common Data Set to get up-to-date information. Or contact the college directly! Colleges have institutional needs that may vary year to year and can be hard to predict. Give yourself options to have the best chance of admission.


Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

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