Three ways to avoid undermatching when applying for college

Three ways to avoid college undermatching

A recent study showed that many college students "undermatch," which is defined by Inside Higher Ed as enrolling at "lower-quality colleges than they could get into."

The study, released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Aug. 2013, found that 28 percent of students surveyed undermatched. It's not usually because students applied to better-fit schools and didn't get in, the study showed. Instead, the students often either weren't applying to better-fit colleges or got into one and decided not to enroll due to either finances, insecurity of success, or a desire to attend a college near their home.

Undermatching for personal reasons, like wanting to stay close to home or financial restraints, could be legitimate. If that's not your experience, though, here are three ways to avoid an undermatch when applying for college.

1. Recognize your potential

If you're undermatching because you don't think you could succeed at a college, which some do, then I'd challenge you to recognize your own potential.

One way to assess your own potential, according to writer Kathrin Tschiesche of Book Boon, is to determine "your strengths, likes and dislikes, preferences, and skills." You can do this, she wrote, by journaling, getting feedback on your work or behavior by colleagues and friends, or looking in the mirror.

If, after doing this, you don't feel like you'd succeed at a higher quality college, then it's possible you're one of the legitimate cases of smart undermatches. But if a college accepts you and thinks you'll succeed there, then perhaps you should take their word for it, since sometimes others see our potential much more than we do and are right.

2. Apply to match and reach schools

Some who undermatch, as the NBER study showed, never applied for higher quality colleges. But you should, because you can probably get in to at least a few and, thus, not undermatch.

As The Princeton Review pointed out, in addition to applying to safety schools (schools you can be reasonably certain you'll get into), you should also apply for match schools (schools your academic credentials align with) and reach schools (schools where your academic credentials fall below the average freshman but it's not impossible to get into). Three reach schools and three match schools is what a lot of students apply to, according to The Princeton Review.

3. Seek out all scholarships and grants you can

Not being able to afford a college is one of the reasons students undermatch, as the NBER study showed.

With the average student accruing $29,400 of student loan debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success, it's perfectly reasonable to not want to take out student loan debt. But there are two other options you should consider before deciding not to enroll in a college for financial reasons: scholarships and grants. There are countless scholarship websites, such as and, filled with scholarships that you may qualify for. Most high school seniors qualify for 50-100 scholarships, a Washington Post article once pointed out. That probably means you, assuming you're in the majority.

And then there are grants, which is also free money. Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and see which federal grants you qualify for.

With so much scholarship money out there, you may end up with funding for college that you don't have to pay back. If not, and you don't feel comfortable taking out any student loans, then you may be one of the cases where an undermatch makes sense for you. But at least try to acquire a scholarship before coming to that conclusion.

Overmatches can also present issues if you're at a school you're not intellectually ready for. The point here is, between undermatch and overmatch is match -- a school you can probably thrive in while still being challenged. If legitimate reasons for undermatching don't exist, look for that match before going with an undermatch -- even if it means assessing your potential, applying to more colleges, and applying for more scholarships and grants.


"Admissions Mismatch," Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, August 13, 2013,

Match, Reach and Safety Schools,

"Secrets to winning a college scholarship," Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post, March 9, 2011,

"Self-Knowledge -- Fund out where your potential lies," Kathrin Tschiesche, November 19, 2012,

"Study Finds Substantial Mismatch in College Choice," NACAC, October 9, 2013,

"The Determinants of Mismatch Between Students and Colleges," Eleanor Wiske Dillon and Jeffrey Andrew Smith, NBER, August 2013,

The Project on Student Debt,

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