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

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June 22, 2022
How Do You Stack Up?Average GPA for CollegesOther FactorsFAQs

”Mary

Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 6/21/22

Most high school students will 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. However, don’t forget your limits physically and academically. 

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? Academic ability and how you can show it always looks good to a college. 

Does a part-time job mean anything, or do I have to do an internship? How does volunteering help? 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 a requirement 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 picking and sticking with your strength, which helps when filling out a competitive college application. Don’t sweat all the details; prioritize the application basics.

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How Do You Stack Up?

When you search the question of "what colleges can I get into?" your research will tell you at some point 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 stand out in a competitive setting as the best applicant? Your focus should start with your GPA, as that determines your choices. AP classes and other arts-based groups look good, then an internship and volunteer work after everything. 

The worst place to find yourself as a college applicant is at a low GPA. You should be worried about this as early as freshman year. Since all your courses weigh equally, earning as many 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. 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, almost anyone could work, especially a teacher. However, it’s best not to ask family members as a general rule. If your college does not require one, it may be in the best interest of both your and your writer’s time to not have one. Most schools ask for one on their application.

An internship or part-time job comes next. If you need money for school or your application wants you to have some form of work experience, then find something. 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. Don't keep doing it if it gets in the way of school.  

If you cannot 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. Don't underestimate what time you have in school either! You may 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.

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. Anything is possible if you work for it!

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 a 3.1 and a 3.3 would be an in-state college. Not only are state schools more affordable, a bachelor's degree from one can allow for some decent future career options. While not usually the top-ranked schools in the country, or even your state, they can be another jumping-off point for applying to a better school.

If, as a student, you want to go to a good school but may only have a 3.5 GPA, you may want to look into your 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. Make sure to research and review the ranking of the top colleges to figure out better what you want.

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

Below is a comprehensive list of various colleges and the average GPA for incoming students. 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.

Table of average college Degrees, GPAs and Letters of Recommendation requirements
Source: Shoreline Community, Virginia State, University of Georgia, Stanford, Stanford, Princeton, Princeton

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, they still hold 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. Every advantage helps

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 and may value students with a higher one over others. 

Extracurriculars

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. Don’t underestimate large programs at your school, like the arts, competitive teams, or clubs, on a college application. 

Work Experience

Though its not always valued the same as other factors, work experience can still give you a way to edge out the competition. The primary purpose of taking on a job or internship comes down to two main ideas. The first is to help you make money that could potentially go towards your college fund. The second should be to help you understand a future job. Both matter.

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. A resume can always help.

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!

Volunteering

While volunteering is a great way to potentially earn scholarships or a way to add value to your college application, it's not the essential item on any list. If anything, the best way to volunteer is through major organizations, such as your school's beta club or scout troop, to help better your community through their programs. 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 showing a long list of volunteer work looks good, and it can; your college can check in on what exactly you've done. The best thing you can show through volunteering is your commitment to passions or causes.

Your time is a valuable commodity that you can put in many different directions.

FAQs

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 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 counselling 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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