What is a reach school?

Last week, I wrote a piece discussing the merits of choosing to attend your safety school; today we’ll talk about the other side of the coin: “reach schools.”

What is a reach school?

Schools are considered a “reach” if either: (a) the student is below average relative to a typical admitted student on most numeric measures like GPA or standardized test scores, or (b) the school’s level of selectivity is high enough that the predictability of any individual student’s decision is quite low.

It also bears mentioning here that once you’ve gotten in to colleges, it doesn’t matter quite so much whether they were safety schools or reach schools to begin with. Now they’re just options for you to choose from, and there isn’t any special reason to consider a school just because there was a smaller chance you’d be admitted. In short, all that matters is that they’ve said “yes.” Now that you have to make serious decision about where you’ll spend four years of your life, what will you say?

Peer Effects

There’s a fascinating concept in the economics of higher education called “peer effects,” which argues that individual outcomes are highly correlated with group average outcomes. The smarter the people in the room, the better off you are. Now, this is a correlative argument and not a causal one, so you won’t want to run off and make your decision after reading the first sentence of this paragraph. But I think there’s something to be said for being around peers who are, statistically speaking, stronger than you are (the definition of a reach school). You might find yourself inspired to understand the way they do or exposed to more complex ideas as a result of their thinking. Over time, you’ll trend in their direction, learning more and faster than you would otherwise.

But as I discussed in my piece on safety schools, this also might create an environment that some students find challenging to get used to. You might have been the top student in your class or cohort for your entire life, and college will be the first time when you’re not the smartest person in the room. I remember going to college and being immediately brought down a peg (or seven… or more) by the quality of my peers. It was hard to get used to being unsure of myself in an intellectual context, and it required some real effort to grow under those conditions rather than feeling frustrated and folding inward. If you do choose a school that was a “reach” for you, prepare yourself for excellent peers and try not to be surprised by strong critiques from faculty on your early work. You’ll get better over time, but the transition might be rough.

The Power of the Name

As schools get more selective, they tend to be more well-known. This doesn’t mean they’re better schools (or even better schools for you), but it does mean that their reputation will extend further than alternatives. In general, you’ll find that your reach schools are the ones that have a heftier reputation than your safety schools. Actualized, this might mean greater access to employment opportunities after you graduate, more instances of recruitment from top firms in industry, and an automatic leg-up in graduate or professional school admission.

In truth, while people might be more likely to recognize the name on your resume if you choose one of your reach schools, they’re not hiring your college—they’re hiring you. A survey of hiring managers has shown that students dramatically overestimate the value of where they went to college in the hiring process, and that employers are much more interested in the individual’s skills and experiences than anything else. If a lesser-known school is more likely to open doors to a meaningful internship, or to allow flexibility for an early start on your career, it might be a better path towards landing the job that you want than the school with the shiny reputation. When it comes to applying for professional schools, you might be in a stronger position at a school where you can really connect with your professors (who will ultimately write your letters of recommendation), rather than the well-known school where you’re just a face in a crowd of undergrads.

No Answers, Just Questions

I studied philosophy in college so I love the fact that conversations like this are all about asking questions rather than finding the answers. There are so many more things for you to consider as you choose a college: Who gave me the best aid package? What do I most value in my educational experience? What will I do with my degree? Where do I most want to live when I grow up? What faculty members are doing exciting research? What if I want to go to graduate school—how then do I balance my choice of undergraduate institution with that of my graduate institution?

Mull them over, talk with your parents, get analytical with a spreadsheet if you have to. In the end, you’ll want to trust your gut. I am a firm believer that we are shaped by the institutions that we choose to attend—that they become the right place for us as we develop our relationships with our peers and grow under their unique qualities. This feels like a hard choice now, but four years you’ll know you made the right one all along.


Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.