PrepScholar Review: Rating All of PrepScholar’s SAT and ACT Prep Options

Research conducted by Emily Kierkegaard, PhD, and expert-reviewed by Kevin Wong, PrepMaven Co-founder

PrepScholar is a newer test prep company that provides courses and tutoring for the SAT, ACT, and other important tests.

Considering working with PrepScholar for test prep? Read this in-depth review first.

We deployed our deep expertise with test prep to evaluate PrepScholar’s offerings and get all the answers for you. 

Read on to learn about PrepScholar’s pricing, instructors, online platform, and customer service, and discover whether their test prep is the right fit for you.

PrepScholar Review: Fast Facts

  • PrepScholar offers a wide range of on-demand video courses, group classes, and one-on-one tutoring for important tests like the SAT and ACT
  • On-demand video courses (with no instructor contact) start at $397
  • Individual tutoring for SAT or ACT prep costs $119–249 per hour, with a minimum package of $995
  • PrepScholar's group classes are only half as long as competitors' classes, so clients are paying similar prices but for half of the teaching hours
student working on laptop

Not sure what kind of tutoring is the right fit? Schedule a free consultation with an educational consultant at PrepMaven

PrepScholar Review: Test Prep Options & Pricing

PrepScholar offers pre-recorded video courses, live group classes, and tutoring for the SAT and ACT. They also provide individual tutoring for AP subjects. Finally, they have recently added on-demand courses for the PSAT, GRE, GMAT, and TOEFL tests.

  • PrepScholar Complete SAT, $397 — pre-recorded video lessons and practice questions, but no contact with an instructor
  • PrepScholar Complete ACT, $397 — pre-recorded video lessons and practice questions, but no contact with an instructor
  • PrepScholar Complete SAT with Live Classes, $895 — self-directed course + 6 live classes with an instructor
  • PrepScholar Complete ACT with Live Classes, $895 — self-directed course + 6 live classes with an instructor
  • PrepScholar Complete + Tutoring, $995–6995 — private tutoring, plus access to the pre-recorded video lessons and practice lessons
  • PrepScholar AP Tutoring, $75–90/hour — individual tutoring sessions
  • PrepScholar PSAT, GRE (general graduate school), GMAT (business programs), TOEFL (English language) — additional courses featuring pre-recorded video lessons and practice questions, but no contact with an instructor 

While these prices might initially look similar to other test prep companies, PrepScholar’s prices are actually quite high. That’s because their courses contain only about 50% of what similar courses from other test prep services offer.

For example, PrepScholar’s live group SAT Classes cost $895 for just 9 hours of class time. In comparison, the Princeton Review’s SAT Essentials course costs $949 for 18 hours of class time, or twice as much live class time as PrepScholar’s program for around the same price. Kaplan’s Live Online SAT Prep class is also 18 hours long, but costs just $699.

Now, savvy readers might point out that giant test prep providers like the Princeton Review or Kaplan don’t hire instructors with top-tier test scores and educational backgrounds. True!

However, there are a handful of other smaller companies that offer SAT courses with amazing Ivy-League instructors. PrepMaven’s SAT Masterclass runs $995 for 18 hours of live classes taught by the company co-founder, a Princeton grad with many years of teaching experience.

PrepScholar’s rates for SAT or ACT tutoring are also overpriced. The smallest package available for SAT or ACT tutoring is $995 for 4 hours of tutoring, which comes out to $249/hour. This is quite a high price, given that some of their tutors are still college students! Students who want to work with top 1% tutors can also consider PrepMaven (one-on-one prep with Ivy-League tutors starting at $79/hour), Prep Expert ($79–99/hour), or SoFlo Tutors ($75/hour).

Keep reading for more detailed reviews of each of PrepScholar's test prep options!

Rating: 4/10

PrepScholar Review: Test prep courses

Complete SAT Complete ACT Live SAT Class Live ACT Class
Cost $397 $397 $895 $895
Live classes 0 0 6 6
Practice tests 4 tests 6 tests 4 tests 6 tests

PrepScholar’s main products for test prep are their Complete SAT course and Complete ACT course

Despite the name, however, these products are far from “complete.”

Each one offers students a combination of pre-recorded video lectures and written explanations of core test concepts and strategies. Students can then drill each concept with online practice questions and quizzes

There is no contact with an instructor or any way to ask for help at any point during these "complete" courses. This type of self-directed course is best for students who are capable of managing their own schedules without the assistance of an instructor.

teacher with whiteboard

The online courses for the SAT and ACT are nearly identical in format, and some content is the same for both courses, especially for math. Both programs take, on average, about 40 hours of work for students to complete. Each one starts with a one-hour diagnostic test to set a baseline. (In contrast, we recommend taking a real complete SAT or ACT to find weak spots.)

PrepScholar’s software then uses this brief diagnostic test to create a study plan. The student’s skill in each subject area is given a rating: core, advanced, or mastery. Students must progress to “mastery” level to complete each topic.

Initially, we liked that this was more customized than the software for more rigid online test prep programs, like the one from Kaplan. However, we found that many students have found it frustrating. 

On the one hand, students who have a lot of work to do in order to be ready for the SAT have found it grueling to get through all three levels of each unit. It can be discouraging to get stuck on the same unit — and in order to qualify for the score increase guarantee, students do need to achieve “mastery” of every subject. 

“I called PrepScholar to explain what constituted ‘complete' the course. She said, ‘your child must achieve mastery level in all 49 skill areas.’ When I wondered if a student could do that, she said, ‘Oh don't worry MOST of our students achieve mastery of all skills in only 50 hours of online instruction.’ This statement is 100% untrue. I asked how many hours a struggling student might take to achieve mastery in ALL 49, worst case. She said ‘100’ hours.

Our daughter spent 4 months, 110 hours online and 18.5 hours of tutoring to get a 90-point improvement, with ‘mastery’ in only 3 of 49 skills. The ‘terms’ also indicate that a skill may no longer be assigned if you have taken it too many times. In 110 hours, no skill was ever 'no longer assigned' to our daughter. So that statement is UNTRUE.

The terms are RIGGED so that your child will never qualify for the ‘guarantee.’”

On the other hand, students who are already moderately well-prepared for the SAT or ACT but are striving for a higher score may find the materials too brief:

“We used the online only services of PrepScholar (not tutoring). All the marketing materials make a strong case for advanced materials that students should commit to 50 hours to fully take advantage of the material. My students (2) essentially maxed out of the materials (i.e. achieved 'mastery' in the Prep Scholar system) after <15 hours each. After you take a module one time and still need improvement, you are tested again in the same area — but the second test is highly repetitive of the first test. The content is quite limited. Students who are of moderate competency at the material don't get much value out of the online materials, there simply is not enough content, variety or depth.”

“Their product of low value for certain types of students.”

In short, PrepScholar’s online courses are not a good fit for either students who have a lot of room to grow or higher-scoring students who already have basic knowledge of many test concepts.

Furthermore, not every lesson includes video — some provide only a written explanation of the concept, which many students have found dry and less helpful. One reviewer has described this text-only content as “lengthy, in the weeds, and just plain dry.” In these cases, there’s little difference between PrepScholar’s course content and a good test prep book, which would cost only $10–40 rather than $400.

In addition to the basic SAT or ACT course, PrepScholar offers a “Dual SAT & ACT” course that combines the material for the two tests. There’s also a “premium” option for each course that simply extends the access time from 12 months to 24 months, which might be better for students who are starting test prep earlier and want to be able to practice over a longer period of time, for example from spring of sophomore year to fall of senior year.

student working on online SAT prep

So is PrepScholar’s self-directed SAT or ACT prep worth the cost?

Ultimately, we’d say no. Their video explanations are often missing, and those that are included are not as high-quality as the more professional videos offered by test-prep giants like Kaplan or the Princeton Review.

We do like how PrepScholar does have a focus on test strategy for the SAT and ACT, which is lacking from some other test prep programs. We also found that PrepScholar offers an extensive set of practice questions with explanations.

However, while additional practice questions are helpful, we find that they’re less effective for raising your SAT score than working with real questions from actual past SAT tests. That’s because while PrepScholar’s authors will try to mimic the test, they’re always going to have slight differences in style compared to the real SAT.

The same goes for the full-length practice tests. We strongly recommend that students focus on real SAT tests for practice, not fake tests created by an outside company. A top-notch tutor or SAT prep class can help students navigate how to use the existing real SAT tests most effectively. 

Furthermore, a very similar set of practice questions and explanations — but this time created in partnership with the College Board, the makers of the SAT — is available completely for free from Khan Academy. Similarly, 8 full real SAT tests are available from the College Board or on Khan Academy. These resources are available forever, with no 12-month cutoff. As one student noted:

“Lessons were decent but you can find the same ones on Khan Academy, WITHOUT all the errors of PrepScholar. However, their lackluster lessons are not the issues. The questions that they attached after each of them at least 2/5 would have issues, marking my correct answer as wrong but explanations have the same answer as me, or just downright having an incomplete/incorrect explanation on how to find the answer.”

In fact, we’d recommend that students who want to self-study for all or a portion of their SAT or ACT prep start with the materials from Khan Academy and real full-length tests from the College Board, and then use printed books or help from a tutor to learn some test strategies and focus on any remaining weak spots.

If students want a guiding hand through the entire test-prep process with access to a real instructor for questions and live feedback, then PrepScholar’s “Complete SAT” course or “Complete ACT” course is not the answer. Students should instead consider a live test-prep group class or a private test-prep tutor.

Rating: 4/10

PrepScholar Review: Live group test prep classes

While PrepScholar’s main focus is on their self-directed SAT and ACT courses, many students prefer to have guidance from a real instructor along their test-prep journey.

To answer this need, PrepScholar offers group classes for both the SAT and the ACT. These classes meet online over video with a live instructor either once per week or twice per week.

First of all, the good: we like that class sizes are small, about 9 students per class. Students also get access to PrepScholar’s extensive bank of practice questions. And PrepScholar’s guarantee of a score increase of 160 points (to students who meet all of the fine-print requirements) is generous.

However, as we mentioned above, these classes are only about half as long as similar classes from competitors. PrepScholar’s classes meet only six times, and students need to commit to a particular schedule. PrepScholar’s SAT class has the following schedule:

  • Class 1: Reading methods, big picture and structure.
  • Class 2: Reading closely and using evidence.
  • Class 3: Math strategies, geometry, data, ratios.
  • Class 4: Algebra: equations, systems, functions, and polynomials.
  • Class 5: SAT grammar and usage.
  • Class 6: Rhetoric and test-day strategies.

There are only three hours (two classes) spent on each part of the each part of the test: Reading, Writing, and Math. This is not very much time at all. Students who have gaps in their knowledge will definitely need more time to cover all of the material covered on the test. Conversely, this is also not nearly enough time to cover the challenging material that will separate the good students from the elite students.

The situation is even worse for PrepScholar’s ACT class:

  • Class 1: English section strategy, grammar and usage.
  • Class 2: English rhetoric, the Top 5 Math strategies, and geometry.
  • Class 3: Numbers and Algebra: Statistics, functions, and more.
  • Class 4: Reading method, details to big picture.
  • Class 5: Science: Experiments, Data, and Viewpoints.
  • Class 6: The Essay and test-day strategies.

They’ve tried to cram the five ACT sections into just six classes, but there’s simply no way to effectively cover all of the material and strategies for the test.

Plus, it's seriously a red flag that PrepScholar dedicates the whole last class to the essay and test-day strategies. Why? Because the ACT Essay does not matter. Spending valuable class time on it is, simply put, a waste of time.

Nevertheless, PrepScholar charges $895 for each of these classes, which is a similar price to what other test prep providers charge for classes that are over twice as long.

Among the test prep giants, the Princeton Review’s SAT Essentials course costs $949 for 18 hours of class time. Kaplan’s Live Online SAT Prep class is also 18 hours long, but costs just $699. Of course these giant companies don’t have top-tier instructors; there are no set qualifications for instructors at either Kaplan or the Princeton Review, so teacher’s don’t necessarily have top test scores themselves or diplomas from competitive universities.

However, smaller boutique companies do offer courses with instructors from the Ivy League who scored in the top 1%. Check out PrepMaven’s SAT Masterclass ($995), which provides for 18 hours of live classes taught by the company co-founder, a Princeton grad with many years of teaching experience. Magoosh also offers a budget-friendly live group class with a top-1% instructor for just $399.

teacher with whiteboard

Furthermore, neither PrepScholar’s SAT class nor ACT class offers any additional support from an instructor. Many competitors offer some combination of group chats, office hours, or other ways for students to ask questions about practice problems or specific test concepts outside of class. PrepMaven’s SAT Masterclass is particularly generous, as students have an extra live session with the Ivy-League instructor every week to ask questions.

Finally, we’ll note that while these group classes do include extensive question banks and several full-length practice tests, these are not the best practice materials

It’s always better to focus on real questions and official past tests, not imitation practice questions created by outside companies. A great test-prep class or tutor will help guide students how to find the best real test questions for practice.

Rating: 4/10

PrepScholar Review: Test prep 1:1 tutoring

In addition to their large group classes, PrepScholar also offers one-on-one SAT and ACT tutoring.

Individual tutoring might be an especially good fit for students who need more than a quick review of core concepts. This has been especially true after Covid, as there has been an unprecedented drop in student’s math and reading skills due to interruptions in schooling.

Individual tutoring is also a great idea for students who are pursuing very high scores (1400 and above for the SAT, or 30 and above for the ACT), and who might feel bored in a general class aimed at the average student. High-achieving students should make sure that they’re working with a tutor who got a top score on the SAT or ACT themself — look for tutors who scored in the top 1% of test-takers. 

Note that if high-achieving students are aiming for a National Merit scholarship, they’ll need a top 1% score on the PSAT, the version of the SAT that students take in October of their junior year. Every year, $35 million in scholarships are awarded through the National Merit program, and some colleges offer full-ride scholarships and other perks to National Merit students. An elite SAT tutor can help with preparation for the PSAT and this competition as well as the SAT. 

That said, one-on-one tutoring can be a good fit for any student! Individual tutoring sessions tend to be more impactful in a shorter period of time, since they can hone in on the specific weaknesses of that student, so they’re great for busy students who want to make the most of their SAT study time. 

An experienced tutor can also make sure to create individualized homework assignments that target the areas the student needs to strengthen to improve their SAT scores.

Crop close up of male student make notes handwrite in notebook study online on computer from home. Man write in notepad talking distant on webcam virtual zoom call on laptop. Education concept.

Is PrepScholar a good choice for SAT tutoring?

We found it to be significantly overpriced compared to other options.

There’s no way to purchase tutoring hours without access to the (so-so) self-directed course as well.

That means that the smallest tutoring package available for SAT or ACT prep is the Complete + Tutoring “Monitored Prep” package. For $995, students get 4 hours of tutoring and access to the self-directed online course materials. 

While families might be attracted by the combination of the self-directed learning with a few hours of tutoring, they should know that a top-notch SAT or ACT tutor will be able to provide students with customized homework and practice problems that are more tailored to the needs of the individual student (not to mention higher quality) than any online course.

Doing the math, the “Monitored Prep” package comes out to an effective tutoring rate of $249/hour, which is significantly higher than other comparable tutoring services — especially considering that some of the tutors may still be undergraduate students themselves.

The effective tutoring rate decreases a bit with larger tutoring packages, but remains quite high:

Package Package cost Hours of tutoring Effective tutoring rate
Monitored Prep $995 4 $249/hour
Tutor-Led Prep $1995 12 $166/hour
Full Tutoring Prep $2995 20 $150/hour
Maximum Tutoring Prep $4795 40 $119/hour

Are PrepScholar’s SAT and ACT tutors worth these high prices?

On the one hand, they’re a more selective group of tutors than many competitors. PrepScholar’s tutors have scored in the top 1% of test-takers, and many have attended top universities.

This makes PrepScholar’s tutors more highly-qualified than tutors at competitors like the Princeton Review, Kaplan, Study Point, LA Tutors, and Varsity Tutors, none of which have specific requisite qualifications for their test-prep tutors.

However, there are several other options that provide tutoring with elite top-1% scorers. Companies like Parker Academics ($200/hour) and Elite Ivy Tutors ($200–300/hour) offer tutoring with top scorers at comparable prices. At more affordable prices, families can still work with top-1% tutors through Prep Expert ($79–99/hour) or SoFlo Tutors ($75/hour).

PrepMaven offers the best of both worlds: tutors at a range of prices, from $79/hour to $349/hour, with Ivy-League and top-1% tutors but with prices depending on the additional qualifications that the tutor might have (like advanced degrees or impressive professional awards).

We also know from our insider research that PrepScholar’s tutors don’t receive extensive training in test-prep methods, unlike tutors at PrepMaven or the Princeton Review

In the end, PrepScholar’s individual SAT and ACT tutoring is better than some options, but it’s wildly overpriced for what they offer. Students can find tutoring of comparable or higher quality with other tutoring services.

Rating: 6/10

PrepScholar Review: Online Platform

For a self-directed online course, the online platform is the product itself!

Meanwhile, the experience and abilities of the tutor or instructor are without doubt the single most important factors in the overall quality of the educational experience for a live class or tutoring… but for online classes and tutoring the platform itself also has a significant impact.

In general, PrepScholar’s online platform has a simple, straightforward look. Their online course has just three tabs on the navigation bar and there aren’t many distractions. On this online platform students can view content lessons, strategy lessons, and progress trackers. 

One critique of PrepScholar’s online platform is that not every concept has video lessons available — some are text-only, like reading a textbook online. The videos that they have are generally less polished than the ones produced by test-prep giants like Kaplan and the Princeton Review.

As we’ve mentioned, some students find the “repeat until mastered” approach to be frustrating if they can’t quite get it, while other students find the content to be too easy and short.

Some clients have reported technical problems with the platform, which are compounded by difficulty reaching customer service.

Rating: 6/10

PrepScholar Review: Customer Service

How does PrepScholar’s customer service stack up?

First of all, many clients have commented that their score guarantee policy, which initially looks quite generous, is very strict. It’s quite difficult to make a successful claim for a refund, because there’s a lot of fine print involved. In particular, students must have achieved “mastery” in each of the test subjects, which is not possible for all students:

“I cannot evaluate how effective PrepScholar is, but I can say that their refund policy is incredibly strict. DO NOT purchase if there is any chance that your child will not take the SAT. PrepScholar absolutely refuses to issue a refund, regardless of the situation, once you have gone beyond the trial period. I know from personal experience.”

“Thousands of dollars and my score went down! Considering a lawsuit as they refused to refund money because their app wouldn’t work to meet their ‘requirements.’ I’m looking to sue! Would NOT recommend.”

“We have had quite a disappointing experience. The materials in tests are easier than in real test. Promise about money back is not real.”

student frustrated with laptop

Other clients have noted that their customer service is hard to reach. Their phone calls are reserved for sales calls, and their responses by email are sometimes unhelpful.

“When I gave the company feedback they would only correspond in email, not by phone and only canned responses from a first-level support person. They declined to interact or to consider that their product advertising is misleading and their product of low value for certain types of students.”

“This is a terrible company and they refuse to talk to you on the phone if you have a problem.  They will only take a phone call if you haven’t bought it yet.  I have contradicting emails.  They refuse to send me my ACT book. Refuse to handle my problem on the phone.  I’m about to call my credit card company to charge back because they refuse to send me my ACT book or handle my problem!”

“Online support is poor. They will answer emails, but just using the party line. They did re-set some sections for me at my request, so that was helpful.”

“If I could give the company 0 starts I would. Never been more dissatisfied with ANY purchase in my life. Customer service is unavailable after you spend hundreds of dollars. The software does not load and we just spent 2 days trying their "troubleshooting" which is an automated canned response. They haven't answered our initial inquiries from 2+ days ago. Horrible, horrible service and the product doesn't work.”

This is the kind of personal touch that is often lacking from a larger company like PrepScholar. For a more hands-on and empathetic approach, we recommend considering a smaller boutique company like PrepMaven, Elite Ivy Tutors, or the Tutoring Service of New York.

Rating: 5/10

PrepScholar Review: Final Verdict

PrepScholar is a newer presence in the test prep industry, but they’re already one of the larger companies.

In the end, we found that while they have some good elements, on the whole their products are lacking or overpriced.

Their customer service can be very hard to reach, and their "generous" score raise guarantee is in reality very difficult to claim.

Some of their online materials might be helpful to students studying for the SAT or ACT, but they’re not as good as real official test questions, which are available for free elsewhere.

Ultimately, any amount of practice will help students prepare for the SAT and ACT, but there are many other options that will teach students more effectively, at better prices. 

We like that all of their instructors for live classes and tutoring are top 1% scorers who come from elite schools. However, they’ve sneakily made their SAT and ACT classes only half the length (or shorter) than other test-prep options in the same price range.

That means that while the sticker price for their live classes might look similar, PrepScholar’s live classes are actually at least twice as expensive as other options, including other classes with top-1% or Ivy-League tutors.

Princeton University
Princeton University

If students are looking for a top-notch SAT prep class, but with smaller classes, more individualized attention, and top 1% instructors who hail from the Ivy League, we recommend PrepMaven’s SAT MasterClass. If families are specifically interested in one of the large test prep companies, we recommend Princeton Review over Kaplan

For families on a budget, we cannot recommend enough Khan Academy’s free SAT materials created in partnership with the College Board, creators of the SAT. Magoosh’s SAT prep course is pretty good value, too.

Similarly, PrepScholar’s SAT and ACT tutoring is wildly overpriced compared to test-prep competitors.

If students and families are looking for a more hands-on tutoring company with carefully selected Ivy-League tutors with prior teaching experience and specific training, we recommend working with a selective tutoring services like PrepMaven ($79–349/hour) or Elite Ivy Tutors ($200–300/hour), where all of the tutors are from the Ivy-League with impressive backgrounds, and where the quality of instruction is consistently very high. 

Overall Rating: 5/10

What is the SAT?

Each year, roughly 2 million high school students take the SAT.* 

Along with the ACT, the SAT is a key component of college admissions. Colleges use test scores to gauge a student’s college readiness.

While many schools have gone test-optional in the wake of Covid, the most competitive schools still like to see SAT or ACT scores. In fact, according to reporting by New York Magazine, some elite schools--like MIT--are once again requiring submission of standardized test scores.

And, according to a report by CBS News, Yale and Dartmouth have recently joined MIT as well, saying that required standardized test scores will actually help poorer applicants.

Even for schools that don't yet require the SAT, looking at the Common Data Set information for top schools like MIT and Princeton shows that SAT and ACT scores are still an extremely important part of the admissions process.

In addition to college admission, test scores can be used to earn scholarships or placement in special programs. Many schools that are test-optional are still using test scores for scholarships, so good scores can be an important way of avoiding student debt.

Younger students can also use test scores for admission to gifted and talented programs.

For students whose grades may have slipped during high school, test scores can also be used to show admissions officers your potential.

Finally, test scores are a handy tool for students to figure out where they might be a competitive applicant. Wondering if you have a chance at getting into Harvard? Not sure if University of Illinois is a reach school or a safety school for you? Test scores can help you there.

Check out our other posts for more information about how the digital SAT is scored, SAT test dates and deadlines, and how the SAT is different from the ACT. We also have many free test prep resources. For more test prep guidance, schedule a call with Jessica or one of our founders today!

* 2.2 million students of the class of 2020 took the SAT, a record high. Due to Covid, this number dipped to 1.5 million for the class of 2021. (source: College Board)

quad at Stanford
Stanford University

Why work with a private SAT tutor?

You may want to consider working with an SAT tutor if:

  • You have no idea where to start in order to prepare for the SAT
  • You feel overwhelmed by all of the different SAT prep books and materials and don’t know which to choose
  • You have a hard time keeping yourself on track and want an external structure to hold you accountable
  • You're not sure what counts as a "good" SAT score
  • You're not sure exactly what's on the SAT
  • You’ve been practicing on your own but your gains have plateaued
  • You have a limited amount of time and need to be efficient in your studying
  • You want to learn techniques for managing test anxiety
  • You want insider tips about test strategies
  • You want more individualized attention than you’d get in a prep class with other students
  • You want to learn efficiently, with each lesson tailored to your exact needs
  • You’re a high scorer who would be bored in a general prep class
  • You’re a lower scorer who would benefit from more focused help
  • You have specific gaps in your knowledge (e.g. missed a few months of geometry due to Covid, an injury, a family move, etc.) and need a tutor to teach this material

With our SAT students, we typically see students increase their scores by about 100–300 points after working with a tutor. This can have a significant impact on college admissions.

How to Make a College List — 6 Steps to Build a Balanced List

How to Make a College List

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's Step-by-Step Guide to Making a College List

Applying to colleges is an exciting process, but with nearly 4,000 degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, choosing the right colleges can be overwhelming!

Learn about our 6 steps to build a balanced college list that’s perfect for you.

Then download our free worksheet to follow each step in the process. We’ll guide you in using data to make sure your list is balanced with the right mix of safety, target, and reach schools.

In this article:

Step 1: Start early
Step 2: Think about what matters most to you
Step 3: Research potential colleges
Step 4: Make a long list
Step 5: Categorize your admissions chances
Step 6: Shorten your list
3 Example college lists
Common college list mistakes
Next steps

Step 1: Start early

It can be a good idea to start thinking about college early, especially since this is the fun stage!

Even as a middle school student or freshman in high school, start exploring your hopes and dreams for college. Imagine yourself on campus and earning your degree. Think big!

Visiting college campuses can help you to get a feel for what life in college might look like.

Students can check out schools nearby, or visit older siblings, cousins, and friends who are in college. At this stage, don’t worry about only visiting specific schools that interest you — any experience can give you a sense of what qualities you might seek out or avoid in a school.

Princeton University
Princeton University

Students can also participate in summer programs on college campuses, and advanced students might even take a real college course. While some of these programs may be expensive, there are some amazing summer programs that are free of cost for admitted students, and some programs also have scholarships available.

Get excited about going to college! It’s a major step in your life and can be an amazing time for many students. 

Step 2: Think about what matters most to you

By your junior year of high school, start brainstorming about the qualities you might want in a school. 

Remember, you’ll spend about four years of your life at that school, so you want to pick a place that you’d find supportive and enjoyable. College will also be a formative experience for you as a young adult and can provide career opportunities and connections for the rest of your life. There’s a lot to consider here, so don’t rush this process!

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What kind of school size feels most comfortable to you? A big school, a small school? Do you want to be attending large lectures with 300+ students or small seminars with 6–12 students?
  • Do you want to go to school in a city, suburb, or rural area? A school in the middle of a city will feel very different from a school in the middle of nowhere. 
  • Is there a specific major or program that you know you want to have available? (For example, a major in Environmental Studies, a study abroad program, opportunities for computer engineering students to intern at real tech companies during the semester, a good music performance program, etc.)
  • Is proximity to home or family important to you? 
  • Is weather and climate important to you? Are there any other landscape features that make you happy or enable activities you enjoy? (Mountains, ocean, natural parks, etc.) What kind of physical environment would make you the happiest?
  • What kind of campus culture would be the most supportive for you? Are there aspects of your identity (race, gender and sexuality, religion, disability, etc.) that might be supported at some campuses more than others? Do youI want to consider attending a college designed for a specific population like a HBCU or a women’s college?
  • Do you prefer to be academically comfortable or academically challenged? Will you feel okay if you’re not the strongest student at the school, or do you want to be a star?
  • Are there any athletic teams or extracurricular activities that are important to you to continue in college? What kind of balance do you want between studying and having a social life? Do you want to go to a school with a strong sports culture and big games?
  • Do you want to go to a college where most students live in campus dorms, or a college where many students live off-campus (at home, in shared apartments, on their own)?
  • Do you want to go to a college where Greek life (fraternities and sororities) are a significant element of campus life?
  • Do you want to go to a college where it’s just undergraduates or a research university with graduate programs? A liberal arts college typically has more of a focus on teaching undergraduates, whereas a big university with graduate programs (like a law school, medical school, business school, etc.) might be more focused on cutting-edge research than on the educational experience for undergrads. Both options are good, but they’re very different!

Step 3: Research potential colleges and universities

Now that you have some ideas of the qualities that matter to you, it’s time to do some research.

Use the resources listed below to learn about different schools. You’ll want to make a spreadsheet to keep track of everything, like this:

College list starter spreadsheet

The qualities of colleges that are important to you are going to be unique to you, so you’ll want to modify your spreadsheet accordingly. Here are some things you want to research for each school:

  • What is the size of the student body?
  • What is the school location like? Big city, small city, suburb, rural? How hard or expensive is it to reach a campus from your hometown?
  • What’s the cost of the school? Can you get in-state tuition, academic scholarships, athletic scholarships, or scholarships for other achievements (music, community service, etc.)?
  • What are the graduation rates? What are the retention rates for first-year students?
  • If you have future career plans already: how well does this school prepare you for the next step in pursuing your career? (For example, do they have any special opportunities for pre-med students or students interested in international business? Mentorship opportunities?)
  • If you have a sense of your major or program, reach out to current students at that school in that area of study. Experiences can vary hugely depending on the department at a given school. 
  • Are there opportunities for undergraduate research or internships?
  • How strong is the alumni network or career services at that school? What kind of career resources are available to alumni 1, 5, 10+ years after graduation? (This varies hugely! For example, as a Princeton grad I can get one-on-one career coaching for life.)
  • When are application deadlines, and what’s the timeline for notifications of admissions? Take note of options for early decision, early action, or rolling admission. It can be very calming to get at least once acceptance by December of junior year, so that even if students apply to more schools with January deadlines, they know they already have some options.
  • What is housing like for that school? Dorms, off-campus housing in groups or individually? Is housing guaranteed for all four years of college? This is an underrated but important thing to consider.
  • Is the school need-blind? (That means that your family’s financial means won’t affect your chances of admission.)
  • Do students at that school tend to help each other or compete to outperform each other? Do students have fun or is campus “where fun goes to die”? What’s the general vibe on campus?
  • Reach out to current students at that school who share your identities (race, gender and sexuality, religion, disability, first-generation, women in STEM, lower-income, international, etc.). What are their experiences, and would they recommend that school to similar students? Check out rankings by tools for specific communities like the Campus Pride Index or Essence.

Be open-minded during this research stage! 

Maybe you’d grown up excited about your parents’ alma mater or always imagined yourself at Harvard or UNC, but when you consider the actual qualities of your childhood dream college make sure it turns out to be the best fit for you

Everyone is different, and “good fit” schools are similarly different for everyone!

Stanford University
Stanford University

Tools for college research:

  • College Scorecard from the US Department of Education 
  • The BigFuture tool from the College Board (makers of the SAT)
  • The College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics
  • Interactive college search tool from The Education Trust, a nonprofit
  • Map of Colleges that Change Lives
  • Comparison tool from US News
  • “Find your match” quiz and college recommendations from admissions startup Scoir
  • Search for colleges and scholarships with Greenlight, aimed at first-gen and lower-income students
  • Websites for individual colleges and universities
  • Social media, especially viewpoints from current students at that school
  • Visiting schools in person can really help you get a feel — take a tour, sit in on a class, or just wander around campus and envision yourself there

Step 4: Make a long list 

Once you’ve done your initial research, make a long list of about 20–30 schools that interest you. Make an entry for each school on your spreadsheet to stay organized.

At this stage, don’t worry about narrowing down your list. Cast your net wide!

Syracuse University
Syracuse University

Step 5: Categorize your admissions chances 

Once you have an initial list of 20–30 schools, it’s time to make sure your ultimate list is balanced.

A balanced college application list means that you apply to some colleges that are a pretty sure bet (“safety” schools), some colleges where you’re pretty typical for one of their admitted students (“target,” “match,” or “fit” schools), and some colleges where your admission would be a long shot (“reach” schools).

You may dream of going to Harvard, but if you only apply to Ivy League schools, even if you have perfect grades and test scores there will be an element of luck in your admissions results, and you don’t want to risk not getting in anywhere.

When categorizing the colleges on your list, you need to evaluate yourself as an applicant to that school. The categories will be unique to each student — one student’s reach school might be another student’s safety school.

You can use test scores and GPA data to get a rough idea of whether a school is a safety, target/match, or reach school for you. 

Safety/likely schools: your test scores and GPA should be above the 75th percentile for that school, and you know that your extracurriculars are strong for that school. Bonus points if you’re a legacy student (your parents or siblings attended) or if you have another connection to the school. Basically, you’d be a top student at that school.

Admittance rates for safety schools should be higher than 30%. For schools with acceptance rates lower than 30%, chance will be a significant element, so these can’t be a safety schools, regardless of your test scores and GPA.

Target school: your test scores and GPA are within the “middle 50” for that school, which means between the 25th and 75th percentiles. (Ideally your test scores should be above the 50th percentile.) Your extracurricular achievements should be in line with expectations for that school. You’d be a typical student at that school in terms of your academic performance.

Bonus points if you’re a legacy student (your parents or siblings attended) or if you have another connection to the school.

Reach schools: any school where your GPA and test scores are below the 25th percentile for the school is a long shot.

Regardless of your GPA and test scores, we would call colleges with admit rates lower than 10% “reach” schools, because luck will always play a significant role. Even if you have perfect grades and perfect test scores, that’s unfortunately kind of the bare minimum for admissions officers at highly-selective schools like Harvard or Stanford.

For example, we know from the data that 75% of students at CalTech (California Institute of Technology) scored at least a 790 on the Math section of the SAT. Pretty much all of their students had near-perfect SAT scores!

Similarly, we know from testing data that 75% of students at Harvard, UChicago, Duke, CalTech, and MIT scored at least a 35 on the English section of the ACT. Nearly all of their students had perfect scores on the ACT English!

Purdue University

For each school on your long list, look up the average GPA, average class rank, average SAT scores, and average ACT scores. We walk students and families through each step of this process in our Build Your College List worksheet

When you’re evaluating your admissions chances, you can add more nuance by also considering your extracurriculars and your course rigor.

Colleges will look for extracurricular activities where you demonstrated leadership and initiative as well as a high level of skill. Colleges want students who will have a positive impact on their campus. Being “well-rounded” is overrated — dedication and achievement within a specific area are more important than the sheer quantity of activities.

At the most selective colleges, strong extracurriculars will typically mean being outstanding for your state or even nationally, not just the best at your school.

College admissions officers will put your GPA in context by considering the difficulty of your high school classes (“course rigor”). If your school didn’t offer AP classes or other advanced subjects, don’t worry — admissions officers won’t hold that against you. Essentially, they’ll ask whether you took the hardest classes available to you at your school.

Once you’ve used all of this data to categorize the colleges on your long list as safety schools, target schools, or reach schools, you can add this information to your spreadsheet. I like using colors, like this:

College list spreadsheet, color-coded
college list color-coded to show safety, target, and reach schools

Step 6: Shorten your list to the final selection

Now that you’ve done the hard work of researching and categorizing the colleges that interest you, it’s time to edit your list to the final list of colleges where you’ll submit applications.

Make sure that your final list has at least two safety schools and two target schools.

We recommend a final list of around 6–12 colleges and universities. Ambitious students who are aiming at the most selective colleges (Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Pomona, Amherst, and other schools with admissions rates below 10%) might have more than 12 schools on their list, because there’s such a significant element of chance at these schools.

According to The American Freshman, a famous annual survey, 40% of students applied to only 4 or fewer colleges, while 61% of students applied to six or fewer colleges. Nationwide, about 10% of students applied to 12 or more colleges.

(Of course, this data is going to include students who applied Early Decision to one college, were accepted, and didn’t have to finish and submit the rest of their applications!)

Case Western University
Case Western University

Make sure to have this final list by the end of summer before senior year. Students who start working on their college applications during the summer will have a significant advantage, since they’ll be able to concentrate on writing amazing college essays without the distractions of the semester.

(Our Ivy-League essay advisors coach hundreds of students through the essay-writing process each year. Reach out if you’d like help getting started on your essays!)

Example college lists

Let’s take a look at example college lists for three imaginary students:

Example college list #1

Morgan is a student from the Midwest who is passionate about environmental issues and social justice. She’s a strong student with a 3.6 GPA (in the top 10% of her high school class) and scored a 28 on the ACT. She took a few AP classes in high school and scored a 4 on AP Biology, a 5 on AP Political Science, and a 4 on AP US History. She founded an environmental activist club at her high school. She also sings in her school choir and plays trombone in the school band, and she’d like to go to a school with a good music program where she can participate as a non-music major. She’s still not sure if she wants a small school or a big university, but she knows she wants to live on campus. Her college list:

Safety: Oregon State University, Elmhurst College

Target: Lawrence University, St. Olaf College, Luther College, Skidmore College, Concordia College 

Reach: Rice University, University of Michigan, Northwestern University

Example college list #2

Kai is a high-achieving student who wants to become a computer engineer. They live in the South but dream of attending a school on the West Coast. (They don’t like cold weather.) They’re in the top 2% of their high school class with a 3.97 GPA (unweighted) and a 1540 SAT (780 Math and 760 Reading & Writing). In high school they worked with a teacher to start a robotics club at school, and they have also created some websites for local charities. They don’t want to attend a college is a religious affiliation. Their college list: 

Safety: San Diego State University, California State Polytechnic University

Target: UC San Diego, UC Irvine, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara (all of the UC schools share the same application), University of Southern California

Reach: CalTech, Harvey Mudd College, Stanford, UCLA

Example college list #3

Ethan wants to study political science at a liberal arts college with small discussion-based classes. He has this mental picture of an East-Coast school with architecture that looks like Hogwarts, and he hopes to study abroad for a semester in college. He was captain of the school debate team as a senior, and also participated in theater and track at his school. He has always done well in language and history classes but struggled with some of his grades in math and science, so his GPA is a 3.1. His SAT was a 1280 (720 Reading & Writing and 560 Math), but his ACT ended up comparatively higher because it “buried” his math score, and he has a 29 ACT. His college list: 

Safety: Quinnipiac University, Drew University

Target: Ithaca College, UMass Amherst, Bucknell University, Trinity College, University of Vermont

Reach: Swarthmore College, Lehigh University, Haverford College, Kenyon College

Far Reach: Princeton University, Amherst College, Dartmouth College

Common mistakes students make with college lists

Frequent college list mistakes:

  • Don’t focus only on dream schools and ignore safety schools. Try to find safety schools that have a few features that you can be genuinely excited about — close to family, near the beach, have an amazing extracurricular program, exciting honors program, etc.

    • For me, one of my safety schools was a school I could have seen myself attending happily, even if it was less competitive than Princeton! I had extended family nearby, I would have been able to join a cool honors program with its own dorm, their music program was fantastic, and it would have been less expensive (due to scholarships they offered me). I ended up choosing Princeton, but there was a lot to like about my safety school, too.

  • Don’t focus on only prestige and rankings instead of fit. Do your research thoughtfully, listen to your gut, and really try to picture yourself at that college. Top-ranked schools don’t necessarily provide the best education or experience for students. I have several friends who went to MIT but were miserable there and would have been much happier and more successful at another great school!
  • Don’t apply to more colleges than you can manage. Remember, you’ll need to make your application customized for each school and write additional supplemental essays (even if they’re “optional,” you need to do these!). Better to apply to 6 schools with care than to apply to 12 schools sloppily.
  • Don’t focus only on what your parents or family want, and not consider what you want. Remember, your parents aren’t attending this college, you are. Choose colleges that will make you feel supported and excited, and be a good springboard for your future career and life as an independent adult.
  • Don’t mix up your colleges! I’ve heard complaints about this from many admissions officers. The University of Chicago (a highly prestigious private top-10 university) is not the same as University of Illinois at Chicago (a great state school); the University of San Diego is a Catholic liberal arts college, while the University of California San Diego is a leading research university in the UC system, and San Diego State University is a public university in the less-competitive state system.
Princeton University
Princeton University

Some common myths about colleges:

  1. Private colleges are more expensive. 

On average, yes, public colleges cost less than private colleges. However, some private colleges and universities are able to offer more money in scholarships and grants that ultimately make their school less expensive! 

In fact, there are a small handful of top schools that guarantee to meet 100% of their students’ financial need without loans. That means that if your family can’t afford college, college might be completely free.

In 2022, the schools that are completely free for students with demonstrated need are: 

Amherst College
Berea College
Bowdoin College
Brown University
Colby College
College of the Ozarks
Columbia University
Davidson College
Grinnell College
Harvard University
Johns Hopkins
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Northwestern University
Pomona College
Princeton University
Smith College
Stanford University
Swarthmore College
University of Chicago
University of Pennsylvania
Vanderbilt University
Washington and Lee University
Williams College
Yale University

It’s no coincidence that these are some of the most prestigious and highly-selective schools in the country! Scoring admission to one of these top schools can pay off significantly in the form of loan-free aid and even free college.

Note that 6 out of the 8 Ivy-League schools are on this list. That means that Ivy-League colleges and universities may actually be less expensive for students than public universities or less-selective schools. In fact, I’ve known many students who chose Harvard or Princeton because they were actually the least expensive schools for their families.

Other private colleges guarantee to meet 100% of financial need for students whose families earn below a certain benchmark, with these cutoffs ranging between $40,000/year and $200,000/year.

  1. Public universities are less selective than private universities.

There are some amazing public research universities that are just as good — or better! — than top private universities in the US.

Both UCLA and UC Berkeley rank among the top 50 schools in the country. They’re both highly selective schools, and students will need excellent grades, extracurriculars, and essays to win admittance.

Other amazing public universities include Georgia Tech, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Michigan. These schools and the other top universities are sometimes called the “public Ivies.”

What’s more, individual areas of study at some public universities may be the best in the world. The University of Illinois is known for its math and engineering programs, and the University of Virginia is a top place for history. 

University of Virginia
University of Virginia

  1. You have to be rich to get into a top school.

It’s true that students who come from affluent backgrounds are over-represented at the top colleges and universities.

However, the best schools are need-blind, which means that they don’t look at any financial information when making admissions decisions.

Many colleges have made a commitment to expand opportunities for low-to-moderate income students to access selective undergraduate and graduate education. Universities like Princeton, Harvard, and Yale have some amazing programs to provide extra support to students who are first-generation or lower-income. 

If you’re a student who is the first in your family to attend college, or whose family is not “rich,” but who is able to show strong academic achievements, leadership in your community, and other accomplishments, colleges will be interested in you. The trick is to provide context through your essays and letters of recommendation to signal that you may not have had access to certain opportunities.

  1. Schools close to home are less expensive.

Yes, students who qualify for in-state tuition can get a discount on the cost of public universities. There may also be amazing scholarships to local community colleges for strong students.

However, don’t assume that a school will be expensive just because it’s across the country! Some top-tier schools even provide lower-income students with funds to travel to and from campus.

Always do the research on costs for every individual school.

  1. Schools across the country are too hard to reach.

Sheer distance is not the same as travel time! 

When considering how “far” a school is from home or family, also find out how far a campus is from local airports, bus stations, and other transit. 

Travel times can be surprising! For example, my sisters went to Pomono and Harvey Mudd, two of the best small colleges in the country, both located in Claremont, southern California. That’s completely across the country from our hometown outside Chicago, but there’s a smaller airport only 15 minutes from campus with budget flights, so it was actually pretty quick for them to travel from home to college!

Brown University
Brown University

  1. You need to know your major when choosing colleges.

Sure, if you know what you want to study in college or have a plan for your future career, that may influence your college choices.

However, many students have no idea what they’ll study or do after graduation at the point when they’re applying to college. And even if they do have some plans, these are likely to change! Depending on which statistics you read, between 40 and 75% of undergraduate students change their major at least once before earning their degree.

Next steps

Applying to college is an exciting process for students! Do the hard work, but also enjoy thinking about all of the possibilities that await you.

We’ve created a handy worksheet to help students and families through each step of building a great college list — including using data to make sure your list is balanced.

If you’re not yet in the fall of your senior year, there are also lots of things you can do to improve your chances of admission at your dream college!

Our amazing team of Ivy-League tutors has helped thousands of students improve their test scores, grades, and college essays. 

Schedule a free short educational consultation to see how you or your student can improve admissions chances with targeted effort.

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