“I always tell students, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life wondering, ‘What if?’ ” – Susanna Cerasuolo, educational consultant

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When Arianna Moscatel, of Mercer Island, was a senior in high school, she applied to 12 colleges, a mix of “reach” to get in and “likely” to get in.

Though her grades lined up with the University of Washington’s admission requirements, she never thought it was a safe bet. That’s because she directly applied to the Foster School of Business within UW, which accepts limited numbers of freshman applicants every year. She was accepted — to that program and all the other schools she applied to except the University of Michigan.

It’s never ridiculous to reach, says Susanna Cerasuolo, a Seattle-based educational consultant and founder of the website CollegeMapper.com.

“I always tell students, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life wondering, ‘What if?’ ” she says. “If you’ve been dreaming about Columbia or Yale, throw your hat in the ring. Why not? You never know.”

What’s a reach school?

Schools with a high number of applicants and low acceptance rate are often defined as “reach schools.” Cerasuolo points to Stanford, which has a 5-percent acceptance rate. Ivy League schools also fall into this category.

But a reach school can also be a college or university that typically has higher median GPA and test scores for admitted students. A reach school is a college or university typically is where the applicant is “just outside or beyond the bounds of typical profile,” says Bob Dannenhold, director at Seattle-based Collegeology, an educational consulting firm.

If your GPA is below a 3.6 and you are not a first-generation college student, then the UW is a ‘reach’ for you.” - Susanna Cerasuolo, educational consultant

“If your GPA is below a 3.6 and you are not a first-generation college student, then the UW is a ‘reach’ for you,” Cerasuolo says.

Other reach schools in the Pacific Northwest include Whitman College in Walla Walla and Reed College in Portland.

The best reach school for you or your child may be one you’ve never heard of. If your kid is crazy over gaming, Dannenhold points to Champlain College in Vermont, which he calls “the best gaming school in the entire country.” Graduates get great jobs at great pay, but it’s still not an easy school to get into. “There are all these schools with incredible specialties around the country,” he says, and counselors — whether high school or independent — can help mine these educational nuggets.

What are the odds?

Ivy League schools accept athletes, donors/legacies and highly talented or internationally recognized college applicants first, then under-represented students with high scores. That leaves very few remaining spots – even if you have a perfect test scores and a 4.0 GPA, Cerasuolo points out.

“It can be difficult for a 3.9 or 4.0 GPA student to understand why they were not admitted to these super-selective schools, but the fact is that the sheer number of applications means that the colleges must choose from a large pool of super qualified applicants,” she says. “I once heard that Harvard could fill its freshman class four times over with students who have perfect GPAs and test scores.”

“Colleges are not the enemies,” Dannenhold says. “They’re looking for a good match, but cannot or won’t accept every student, even if their parents attended. They don’t want student deficits to put the students in the bottom quarter of the class,” he says, in the second week of classes.

However, a reach doesn’t mean it’s beyond reach. “It may look like a reach, but not when the interests and demonstrated achievements are strong,” Dannenhold says, even when a student’s grades might not be the best — when a student at a local aviation high school was personally awarded recognition for a specific robotics design at a robotics competition, for example.

Hooks and fits

To add an edge to your application, seek a “hook,” Cerasuolo says, or an angle on what makes you truly different from the competition. For example, if you’re a first-generation college student, let colleges know in your application. “Education is the most direct way to break the poverty cycle, and all colleges are keen to assist this effort,” Cerasuolo says.

“It’s all about fit,” Dannenhold says. To place a students in a school “where they’re so excited to be there that they can’t wait to get out of bed every day,” he says. They’re excited about working in their strengths and interests, even if that means kicking off the day with engineering, film or poetry courses. Once students are in their best-fit school, “parents can’t believe their student’s GPA when they bring home their first grades,” he says. “They excel.”

Colleges are seeking students who can give back to the school, long-term, Dannenhold says.

“They want to graduate someone they can be proud of. If the student’s areas of interest matches the real strengths of the reach school, that school will take it into consideration.”

Getting in: the secret sauce

To make a strong case for fit, Dannenhold recommends letters of recommendation that describe how the applicant is seemingly tailored to the school.

Students can also increase chances by visiting schools and talking to professors in their field of passion — our prototypical aviation high school student might try to speak with the robotics professor who wrote a favorite book, for example.

The essay is a huge part of admissions and gives the college a real window into who you are.” - Bob Dannenhold, director at Collegeology

“The essay is a huge part of admissions and gives the college a real window into who you are,” he says. It also affords the chance to honestly discuss anything that appears to be in the way of match, such as a bad math grade. “Let them know ‘this is how I’d like you to see me,’ ” he says, as admissions don’t have a crystal ball and don’t know your whole story.

Price tags and big dreams

“Avoid deciding where to apply purely on the published ‘price’ because that is rarely the price that anyone pays,” Cerasuolo says.

Merit and financial aid can reduce tuition bills, as can scholarship money. Out-of-state private schools may hope to attract students with merit aid, and some western U.S. schools have reciprocity agreements that cut costs.

“If you require financial aid and the college really, really wants you for some reason — for one of your ‘hooks’ — then ask for the aid,” Cerasuolo says. “If you are ‘unhooked,’ asking for financial aid will decrease your chances of admission at schools that are not ‘need-blind.’”

Choosing an application method

To boost your chances, Cerasuolo suggests applying to a school Early Decision, which can double your chances. Early Action can also increase your chances.

Early Decision is binding, so students give up the chance to compare financial aid packages. “If financial aid is important in your decision then ED is not the ideal path,” Cerasuolo says. However, Early Action is not binding.

Early Decision isn’t the best idea if you suspect you can’t afford the school, agrees Dannenhold, unless it guarantees financial aid. Early Action can be a great choice though, he says, because seniors can apply and receive word by Dec. 20. “If you know by December, it can help you enjoy your senior year so much more,” he says, along with giving plenty of time to visit, spend a night on campus or sit in on classes.

Certain colleges — such as Princeton, Yale and Stanford — have Restrictive Early Action or Single Choice Early Action, Cerasuolo notes. “When you choose this option you can only apply EA to that one school, and, if that school allows it, to state schools with EA.” Policies differ and can change from year to year, she says, so read closely.

Casting the application net

Apply to two or three reach schools, Cerasuolo suggests. But applying to too many is just as bad as applying to none at all.

“I have seen disasters where kids applied to only reach schools and were accepted to none,” she says.

“Be sure your college list includes several schools in the mid-range category, and at least one or two ‘likely’ schools, where you know you will be admitted. Having options is important psychologically and financially at the end of the day,” she says.

The name of a school doesn’t mean much if it’s not a good match for a student, Dannenhold says. If the reach school tuition is a serious financial burden for the family, it may also be out-of-bounds.

Not just a small amount of parental ego can be involved as well, especially where legacy admissions are concerned, Dannenhold says.

“There are students whose parents dressed them up in Stanford gear since they were babies, and now the threads have gotten into their bodies,” he says, compelling a (misplaced) sense of predestined acceptance, despite lackluster test scores, a so-so GPA and a distinct lack of challenging coursework.

Moscatel — the student who sent out applications to 12 schools and is now a sophomore at UW— encourages students to apply, apply, apply.

“The worst thing that happens is that they say no,” she says.

The experience of applying was like an extra class, but worth the effort.

“The process helped my writing skills a lot, was an opportunity to tweak my résumé. I did informational interviews at different colleges and with admission counselors,” she adds, which can only help her with job interviews and other “reaches” in the future.