What Colleges Can I Get Into? A Look at the Numbers

Which colleges might accept me?
April 24, 2024
6 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 11/14/23

Most high school students ask themselves: what colleges can I get into? Usually, the answer comes from a comprehensive view of everything you did in high school.

Every student looking forward to college probably has a million questions about the process, from research to application release date. You might be wondering, what college can I get into, or can I get into college without extracurriculars? With these questions, a lot depends on you and your scheduling abilities. 

Some more common student questions cover more specific topics. What kind of GPA do I need to be accepted? How about my SAT scores; how good do they need to be? Do I have to have a letter of recommendation? Who do I ask for one? Is work experience a necessity to get into college? Do I need to do an internship? What about volunteering?

If any of these questions apply to you, you’re looking in the right direction. The college process makes everything far easier for students than you would expect. Most of these qualifications become requirements in the face of competition to get into top-level colleges. 

The average student can find a good college with at least a competitive GPA and application. You don’t need to stress yourself out trying to participate in every extracurricular under the sun. You’re better off sticking with your strengths for a competitive college application. 

What Colleges Can I Get Into?

The answer to the question, “What colleges can I get into?” is simply that it depends on what you’ve done. Depending on where you want to go, what degree you want, and what options you have available, you may be able to succeed more than others. College values differ from place to place and even from admission officer to officer. 

So, what should you prioritize first when setting yourself up for your college application? How should you stack your deck to improve your chances of gaining admission to college? 

Your first priority should be your GPA. Worry about this as early as freshman year! Since all your courses weigh equally, earning high marks early in easier classes can afford you some mistakes in later courses. If you have a low GPA, work on that first. A 3.5 gives you decent options, and you can always transfer later.

AP courses can save you in a competitive setting if you take more than other students. However, don't let them tank your GPA. Colleges can see where you overextend yourself and fail to earn credit. Don’t worry about whether you will get into college without AP courses -  you’ll be fine with a very strong GPA in regular classes.

If your school doesn't offer AP courses, consider attempting dual enrollment. Since AP is college level, taking college courses looks good on any application. 

Many college applications require a letter of recommendation. If you’re worried about who to ask, it’s a good idea to start with a teacher, as it’s best not to ask family members as a general rule. If your college does not require a letter, it may be in your best interest not to have one. However, most schools ask for one on their application.

If you need money for school or your application wants you to have work experience, you should find an internship or part-time job. You may even be able to save yourself time and money later on if you knock out an internship right away. However, a job can be stressful and may eat at your schedule. Make sure it doesn’t get in the way of school.  

If you can’t manage to do everything you want in school, just having a solid GPA and a few AP classes under your belt can make all the difference. You may also be able to squeeze in extracurriculars as classes rather than take the extra time to do them. Your grades matter far more than anything else on an application. 

It’s a good idea to apply to many different colleges to maximize your options. That way, you’ll be able to decide between many different schools rather than putting all your eggs in one basket and potentially being rejected from one dream school. 

Average GPA for Colleges

What grades do you need to get into college? If your GPA is higher, not only will you likely be accepted, but you may be able to get accepted into an even better school. Your GPA sets your school shopping range, and the only way you can figure out what's available is by doing research. 

Consider what transferring schools can do for it before looking at your GPA to determine your available colleges. If your GPA looks too low, it may be better for you to take your early core class requirements to raise it. Not only can this save you money, but schools that may have been out of reach might become available. 

Community college may be the only option for students with a GPA below 3.0. However, it's not the end of the world if you can’t get into anything else. Use your time here to get into that better school. 

While you can only earn an associate's degree at most from a community college, your raised GPA could help you apply for a better school now or even later if you decide to go back. 

The best option for students with a GPA between 3.1-3.3 would be an in-state college. Not only are state schools more affordable, but a bachelor's degree from one can allow for some decent future career options. While not usually the top-ranked schools, they can be another jumping-off point for applying to a better school.

If you want to go to a good school but only have a 3.5 GPA, you may want to look into the best options for colleges in your region. Some schools offer regional exchange programs for students looking for a specific degree not offered at their school. Through this, you may be able to find a better deal to help cover college costs. 

The cream of the crop for college consists of the top-ranked schools in the country. These are the dream schools that any student would happily take a full-ride scholarship from. The average GPA among applicants falls between a 3.5 and a 4.0 but varies by school. 

If you have everything lined up, 4.0 GPA included, for the perfect application and find yourself asking, “what college can I get into?”, then you should consider the Ivy League. To be a competitive applicant for these prestigious schools, you have to be exceptional as a student in everything you can.

Below is a comprehensive list of the top colleges in the US and some admissions data for incoming students. 

University Degree Acceptance Rate Average GPA
Princeton Bachelor’s Degree 4.50% 3.95
MIT Bachelor’s Degree 4.52% 4.19
Harvard Bachelor’s Degree 3.59% 4.00
Stanford Bachelor’s Degree 3.91% 3.95
Yale Bachelor’s Degree 3.73% 4.13
UPenn Bachelor’s Degree 5.80% 3.90
Caltech Bachelor’s Degree 3% 4.19
Duke Bachelor’s Degree 5.15% 3.90
Brown Bachelor’s Degree 5.16% 4.10

University Degree Acceptance Rate Average GPA
Johns Hopkins Bachelor’s Degree ~6.20% 3.93
Northwestern Bachelor’s Degree ~7.50% 4.10
Columbia Bachelor’s Degree 3.85% 4.15
Cornell Bachelor’s Degree 7.90% 3.50
UChicago Bachelor’s Degree 4.77% 4.00
UC Berkeley Bachelor’s Degree 11.73% 3.90
UCLA Bachelor’s Degree 9.46% 3.93
Rice Bachelor’s Degree 7.51% 3.90
Dartmouth Bachelor’s Degree 5.32% 4.11

University Degree Acceptance Rate Average GPA
Vanderbilt Bachelor’s Degree 5.09% 3.91
Notre Dame Bachelor’s Degree 11.10% 4.06
UMichigan Bachelor’s Degree 17.94% 3.90
Georgetown Bachelor’s Degree 12.33% 3.57
University of North Carolina Bachelor’s Degree 18.39% 4.00
Carnegie Mellon Bachelor’s Degree 11.00% 3.90
Emory Bachelor’s Degree 14.49% 3.50
University of Virginia Bachelor’s Degree 16.38% 4.32
WashU Bachelor’s Degree 11.44% 4.0

This should help give you a starting point for what you should aim for when researching what kind of colleges you should actively search for. 

Other Factors

While your GPA and course load play a big part in the schools you can get into, remember that the application process is competitive. Colleges can only take so many applicants per year. The higher they are ranked, the higher your chances of being deferred in favor of more accomplished students. Your participation in outside activities may make a difference.

Standardized Testing Scores 

While standardized testing may not show up as a requirement on every college application anymore, it still holds considerable sway over your acceptance. In some cases, it may affect as much as your GPA. 

Both the SAT and ACT cover high school-level math and sciences and offer a benchmark so that colleges can easily compare you to other students of equal caliber.

If you're still wondering: "what colleges can I get into?" you can go by your SAT or ACT score as an alternative to your GPA to match yourself to your college. If you already have a dream school, you want at least to match your ACT or SAT score to their average. Don't be afraid to retake the test to raise your score to that level or higher.

Pick the SAT or ACT as a reflection of your dream degree pathway. If your school or degree focuses on a math-based degree pathway, pick the ACT. If you're going to a school for the arts or history, an SAT score may better reflect you. College admissions officers pay close attention to your scores.


Extracurriculars function as an addition to your application and, in some cases, a requirement. Sure, you can ask your college tour guide,  “can I get into college without extracurriculars?” and they’ll probably answer that you can, but that misses the point. Depending on where you’re going, say an art school, you should have some sort of passion. 

If you’re good enough at an extracurricular, it could end up as your free entrance into your school if you can earn a scholarship. Some colleges may want you to audition or present some sort of way to express yourself through your passions.

Remember, college admissions officers have a life outside of picking students to attend your school. If they see a student who participated in an activity, either as part of or outside of school, that they valued in their life, they may prefer you as an applicant. 

Work Experience

Though it's not always valued the same as other factors, work experience can still give you a way to edge out the competition. Taking on a job or internship serves two main purposes. The first is to help you make money that could potentially go toward your college fund. The second should be to help you understand a future job. 

Most high school students pick their school based on what that college advertises itself for, like MIT and engineering or Julliard and music. Taking on an internship could help you decide what pathway you want to take towards a future career. Your college does an excellent job at helping you decide what and where you should work towards. 

Supplemental Essays

It’s common for colleges to ask applicants to write supplemental essays as part of their application. This is a chance for the admissions committee to learn more about you in your own words, which is often highly valued! 

Colleges may give you prompts to respond to, or they may just ask you to write an open-ended personal statement. It’s important that you spend lots of time on your essays, as a strong essay can contribute significantly to college admissions decisions. 

Letters of Recommendation

Many colleges want to see one at least, and even more likely, two letters of recommendation to accompany your college application. As a student, you don't have to worry about the whole writing process, but you should still think about who you should ask for one. There's a real reason to be nice to your teachers if you're planning on applying for college.

Once you've picked out the teachers (your application may require them to be from your teachers) you trust most, make sure you inform them of when it should be done by and any other details they need to know. The best time to ask should be well in advance, so be sure to ask before your deadline. Remember that your teachers can be surprisingly busy!

College Interview

Not all colleges offer interviews, but for the ones that do, college interviews can be a big help both to you, the applicant, and to the admissions committee! Often, interviews are not valued highly in the admissions process (although sometimes they are!) and are generally presented as more of an opportunity for you to learn more about the school. 

Regardless, it’s important that you make a good impression in your college interview. Be sure to brush up on interview etiquette, such as appropriate clothing to wear and the practice of sending a thank-you note afterward. 


Community service is a great way to potentially earn scholarships or add value to your college application, and is also a good way to demonstrate passion and leadership. The best way to volunteer is through major organizations, such as your school's beta club or scout troop. It might make you some good friends too!

If there is anything that stands out as a negative on an application, it's participation at low levels among a long list of organizations. You may think that a bulky application with a long list of volunteer work looks good, but quality is better than quantity. The best thing you can show through volunteering is your commitment to passions or causes.


Still asking yourself, “what college can I get into?” Take a look at our answers to these frequently asked questions to get more insight. 

1. What Is a Good GPA to Get Into College?

Anything above a 3.5 GPA will at least get you into a good college. However, base your college choice on what you match based on the average grade when choosing where to apply. You should either pick schools based on your ability reflected through your GPA or work to raise your GPA to get into your college of choice. 

2. Are Colleges with a 100% Acceptance Rate Worth Going To?

Yes! There's nothing wrong with accepting what you can! If you get deferred from your dream school, it's good to have at least a decent backup. You may even save money in the long run, as those top-tier schools are super expensive and rack up a ton of debt. 

3. Do Extracurriculars Affect GPA?

They can, but only if they're considered a class. You may be able to use certain extracurriculars to waive taking physical education or another required elective, like a sport, for instance. Some extracurriculars may be a way to raise your GPA if the only thing your teacher requires for an A is participation.

4. Is One Extracurricular Enough for College?

There's no way to know if one is enough. However, it's best to show your commitment through participation. How you talk about your achievements matters more; the best way to introduce yourself is through your college application essays. Remember, it's your time that you can always devote to your GPA.

5. Can a Student Write a Letter of Recommendation for College?

No, it's best not to yourself, nor should you ask a peer. Your teachers should have the best idea of what to include and how to write it. It's somewhat of an expectation of them. The only thing you need to do is give them enough time and material to write about your actions. 

6. How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

There's no correct answer to how many colleges you should apply to. You should decide based on your free time, the chances of getting into your best colleges, what backup colleges you want, and if you're applying through early decision. 

If you're not going with an early decision choice, a good number to pick would be between 3 and 5, depending on your confidence and how much time you have for the applications. There's always a chance you get rejected for any reason, so backups are critical. 

Final Thoughts

College counseling always comes with a million different questions: what college can I get into if I have this GPA or this SAT score, have these achievements, or can I get into college without extracurriculars, etc. 

The best way to prove that you belong anywhere is to meet or exceed the standards required of you on an application and pray for the chance that someone hasn't already outcompeted you.

College applications always come with a bit of luck and take a lot of skill. Your best options come from your list of applications, from your number one pick to your backup schools. What matters more on an application is how you've expressed yourself in the ways that a college values. 

The numbers get you in the door, but your passion and achievements get you accepted.

Good luck on getting into college!

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