THE BLOG
10/16/2014 11:53 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Do This to Improve Your College Chances

October is the busiest month in the college application process. Most public universities review applications on a "first come, first serve basis," so it helps to apply now. Many private colleges will tell you before Christmas if you apply before Halloween, so it helps to apply now. Anxiety goes up when you run out of now -- and that's what October can be all about.

To ease the anxiety, students often turn to their college list for inspiration -- but that can just make things worse. Every college you're applying to has an acceptance rate lower than Congress's public approval rating, and while most legislators will get admitted to the institution of their choice for next year, that can't be said about everyone applying to the colleges you worship, including you.

So what can you do? Think about Plan B.

You know -- those schools your counselor talked about last spring? The ones that have most, if not more, of the qualities you're looking for in a college? The ones that may actually offer you money to attend? How many of those schools have you applied to?

Thought so.

Since this is a busy time, your counselor can't remind you of the importance of this list -- so here goes:

• It makes perfect sense to apply to a college you love, but no matter how strong you are, colleges don't take everyone -- students with perfect grades and scores hear "no" all the time.

• Applying to 17 colleges that each has a 5 percent chance of admission does not mean there's a 105 percent chance you will be admitted to at least one -- it's still 5 percent in each case.

• These schools run out of room before they run out of great students. That isn't your fault -- but you'll still need somewhere to go to college, and it should be some place you like.

Thinking about these schools now can seem like picking out a frozen pizza at the Piggly Wiggly when you have your heart set on Pizza Papalis. And while you appreciate everything your counselor is doing, it doesn't help that they give these schools a title that sounds like, well, Second Prize. Safety Schools. Fall Back Schools. Just-In-Case Schools.

Holla.

It's time to stop thinking about getting into college, and start thinking about going to college. Do the schools on both lists offer the same majors? Have about the same class size? Do the students at all schools care equally about learning, or thinking, or Friday night? If someone took you blindfolded to the campus of one of the colleges on your list, would you be able to sort out which list it was on, if you only heard students talking in its classes, and not the admissions office talking about its rankings?

Everyone has their first choices in the world, and pursuing them with all your worth is as important as eating well and looking both ways across the street. But considering other choices at the right time broadens your options, enriches your perspective, and requires you to look more closely at the real value of your top pick -- and now is the right time.

It isn't easy to look past something you love and may never have, but doing so creates an important byproduct. It's called humility, and since it's in short supply, more colleges value the real thing. The end result? By looking past your first choice college, you're more attractive to it --and if the college says No, you've only lost one opportunity you love, while building many opportunities you like an awful lot.

So. About Plan B.