One of the eternal questions in the admissions process is “what are my chances?”
In fact, as of January 2018, there are nearly 150,000 threads and 800,000+ responses on the popular College Confidential forum for this topic. When you hear people say things like, “well, you have a 15.75% chance of being admitted to Harvard,” I can’t help but cringe. Putting an exact percent on someone’s admissions odds is impossible.
This is why a good college counselor will help students categorize their college list into the categories of “safety,” “target,” or “reach.” These rough categories ensure that students will have good options and will not sell themselves short in the admissions process. A successful college admissions process will also probably mean that you are denied from some schools (which is okay!).
So, how does a college counselor make those determinations?
The major driver of that determination is test scores and GPA. I know, I know…students are more than just a number, but at most schools, these two factors are very correlated to whether a student is admitted or not. Other factors, including essays, activities, recommendations, and hooks (legacy, athletic recruiting, underrepresented status, etc.), certainly matter, but for the sake of figuring out a target vs. a reach, the GPA/test scores are of primary importance.
Therefore, this also means that we can use objective data. For college counselors, the best tool to make these assessments are scattergrams.
Where do I find these scattergrams?
Without a doubt, the best source would be your high school’s Naviance account. Naviance is the best tool, because the data is only from students at your high school.
If your high school does not have Naviance, do not despair! Cappex has a scattergram tool that is also effective (though the data is self-reported from students all over the country).
How do I use the scattergrams?
Here is an example scattergram from Cappex:
I created a fake student who is represented by the yellow star. On the horizontal axis, you will see test scores, and on the vertical access, you will see the GPA. The other dots represent students who were admitted, wait listed, and denied, which gives us a quick visualization of the applicant pool. We see that while there are some students being admitted with similar “stats” to our fake student, the majority of students have higher grades and/or testing. This means that this school would be a reach school.
There are a few other important things to note here:
- Having higher “stats” than this person does not guarantee anything. We see that there are multiple students with very high GPAs and very high test scores who are either denied or wait listed.
- At the same time, we see students with “lower” stats who are admitted.
- These graphs do not contain any context about the rest of the student’s application or hooks
- We are not able to sort these graphs by “decision round” (whether a student applies Early Decision or Regular Decision). This is a college that offers Early Decision, so there would certainly be a difference in acceptance rates between ED and RD applicants.
Remember, scattergrams are not perfect!
As a college counselor, I have seen the painstaking attention that students put into assessing how new SAT scores or projected grades will impact their chances. Do not agonize over the scattergrams–they are meant to be a tool and do not have any predictive power. As mentioned, scattergrams do not take every aspect of your application into consideration, including extracurricular activities, essays, interviews, or recommendations. These are all important parts of the application process too!
Scattergrams can be a fantastic research tool as you are start building your college list. You can also check out our The Basics of Building Your College List Guide for more tips and insights!