How to Create an Optimal University List in Three Steps? - Atlas Academy

How to Create an Optimal University List in Three Steps?

University Applications


By Gabija Žukauskaitė

Published 2023 02 13

Creating a well-thought-out target university list requires careful research and strategic thinking. Having said that, the rewards for doing this homework are considerable. That is because the right balance of safety, match, and reach universities can maximize one’s chances of acceptance. This post will clarify these three terms, provide some examples of universities within each group, and advise on the overall number of universities you should apply to. 

What Are the Main Differences Between Safety, Match, and Reach Schools?

While still being able to challenge you intellectually, ‘safety’ schools should be universities that accept students with lower GPAs and test scores than yours. Thus, they should guarantee a greater than 75% chance of admission. ‘Match’ schools, by most definitions, should fall between 50-75% chance of acceptance. Finally, there are ‘reach’ universities, where your chances of being accepted are lower than 50%, maybe even than 25%. If we consider Ivy League schools or other top US universities like Stanford, which have the lowest acceptance rates in the world, they can be classified as ‘reach’ schools for all applicants. Since even the very best students often get rejected by these schools, we label the top US universities the highest-risk yet highest-reward choice.

As we have a dual focus on both US and Western Europe, our thesis is that if it’s not a top-tier school that you get admitted to in the States, Western Europe might offer better options, especially for international students. This is because the best US universities truly stand out in terms of the education quality, as well as financial aid generosity in comparison to most alternatives globally. If we move to second-tier institutions, however, financial aid quickly becomes very limited and the academic rigor evens out or starts to fall behind that of the best Western European institutions of higher education. Thus, oftentimes the quality/price ratio shifts in favor of Western Europe. 

Hence, at Atlas, for high-achieving students we recommend the following:

  • Having 5-8 ‘reach’ schools be the best universities in the United States. Depending on the student’s interests, background and the time remaining till the application deadline, this number can be slightly higher. Again, this is the highest-risk highest-reward part of your application portfolio.
  • Having 3-7 ‘match’ schools situated in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Spain. These are slightly less selective, yet still very academically demanding and prestigious institutions that the student would be excited to attend, if admitted.
  • Having 2-3 ‘safety’ schools in the aforementioned countries, especially in the Netherlands. Ideally, ‘safety’ schools are still excellent ones, but the student is relatively assured in their success during the selection process. We do not recommending picking very low-barrier-to-entry schools even to be part of this set, as it is unlikely that the student will have a good undergraduate experience attending an institution they genuinely did not want to go to. Instead, it might be better to take a gap year, improve one’s grades and extracurricular portfolio, and reapply next year.
How to Compose a Balanced University List?
  1. Research university rankings and each university’s reputation. Apart from top US schools that follow a more general liberal arts curriculum, we recommend taking a very good look at how the specific programs are ranked instead of making a decision based on the overall ranking. For instance, if you are applying for a degree in politics, universities like Sciences Po or the London School of Economics (LSE) may not be the best ranked (or not ranked at all) by some of the most popular international ranking systems. However, if you take a look at how they are ranked by subject (e.g., politics), you will see that those schools are among the top 5 in the world. Their reputations in the job market and academia are also stellar.
  2. Research the admissions requirements for the selected degree/university and determine the approximate acceptance rate in your specific case. Here, keep in mind that some criteria may be either more or less favorable to your individual case. For instance, top US universities, although extremely competitive, apart from formal academic achievements (such as academic Olympiads), also care about the student’s unique story, personal projects, extracurricular achievements and leadership potential. On the contrary, academically distinguished students who are, for example, winners of national or international Olympiads, stand higher chances of getting accepted to Oxford or Cambridge than an Ivy League school.
  3. Refine your list by categorizing the selected universities into ‘safety’, ‘match’, and ‘reach’ options. Based on the three categories discussed previously, we advise you to make up the preliminary list of universities you would apply to and discuss it with a mentor or your school’s guidance counselor. Keep it balanced in a strategic sense, to ensure the best chances of admissions!
A Few Tips on Rankings

Before diving deep into various rankings, it is good to read up on their respective methodologies and figure out what’s behind each of them. A good place to start is this article by QS.

Reputation can be assessed by looking at how frequently universities are mentioned in top publications, popular books – how far reaching their academic work is, how respected their Professors are, etc. Another good way is talking to people who are older, in an industry you would like to work in, and know which schools are highly valued by employers in practice. Or, even better – talking to insiders of these schools, current students or recent graduates, who still maintain a fresh take on what life there is really like.

Finally, there are other, less conventional rankings, like College Niche, that incorporate other aspects of college life that can prove important over four years, which you should also take a look at.


Atlas Can Help

Here at Atlas, we help students research and compose their final list of target universities based on a series of objective criteria and the student’s own personal preferences.


Published by

Gabija Žukauskaitė

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