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I was shotgunning before it was cool: A guide to building and executing a successful college list

Culkin, Mattie Shotgunning (5.12.2023)

When I was a high school senior back in 2009, I applied to 28 schools. Yo, let’s see if I can remember them all. O means accepted X is rejected. I don’t think waitlists were as big a thing back then.

UC Berkeley X



UC Irvine O

UC Davis O


UC Riverside O


I don’t think Merced existed yet ?

Cal Poly O

SF State O

San Diego State O

Tulane (EA) O (80K merit)

University of Michigan (EA) X


Vanderbilt X

University of San Diego O (40K merit)

Occidental O

Kenyon College O (Full ride)


University of Washington: Seattle O

WashU because my mom made me X

Penn State O

University of Oregon O

I don’t think I applied to Texas and I regret it ?


Loyola Marymount! O

Oregon State I think O

Oberlin O

Merced did exist! O

That’s 26. I know it was 28 hold on I’m gonna go look at lists.

LEHIGH! Cause my aunty went there!!! O

Annnnnd Notre Dame. Right. They waitlisted me and I still haven’t heard back O/X

For the record, I was a full-pay white kid from a prestigious Bay Area private school. I had a 3.6UW and 3.9W, but this was before the AP Armageddon, so the numbers are (extra) meaningless. I remember a counselor saying schools took the average of weighted/unweighted, which would mean 3.75. They so don’t do that anymore.

I got a 2210 on my SAT, which translated to either Boomer or Zoomer standard is ~1470

My ECs were quite good, bordering on excellent. I was a 4-year Cross Country and Track runner. I was also an avid debater, if not a terribly successful one.

More impressive was I was the moderator of my school’s monthly town hall assembly. I got to use a gavel!

But the real meat was my writing. I won several non-fiction writing contests. I often assumed because I was the only teenager entering for creative non-fiction.

I also wrote for the school newspaper and…like, people gave a shit? Like, I was known as the guy who writes for the newspaper and you should check it out? I don’t know why I feel like I need to justify the idea that teenagers would voluntarily read me, but I do.

My essays were aight. I also liked writing them and thought applying to college was super fun. This is why I spent the decade after college writing about party supplies and women’s swimwear.

What I wanted was “the classic college experience.” Meaning I wanted to go to a prestigious school that had a football team and never got below 38 degrees Fahrenheit.


So, knowing all that, what would I change? It’s a little weird to merge time periods because, as we all know, college admissions was significantly harder fourteen years ago. But I can still make some easy calls.

I visited Occidental and hated it. So cut that + Oberlin. Kenyon legit recruited me. Like they wanted this writer smoke. Unfortunately, back in 2009 Kenyon College was in Ohio. They can stay for posterity.

I would never end up at Oregon, Oregon State, Loyola, or Lehigh. I also don’t make kids apply to Riverside/Merced/Santa Cruz/Any CSU besides Cal Poly if they promise they’d instead go to a CC. Those can all go. I’d also cut University of San Diego because then I wouldn’t have ever visited and had the image of 45 stunning co-eds all riding bikes over a bridge seared into my amygdala forever.

So cut those, and we’re back down to…18! Perfectly reasonable!

Right, but what schools would I add?









San Jose State

Neat! Back to 28!

Of the new ones, I heavily doubt I get into any besides mayyyybe UVA, mayyyyyyyyybe Emory, SJ, UNC, and Texas.

But what if I did?!? Wouldn’t that be sick?!!


This obnoxiously long intro is mostly to explain to you how I operate. It’s not just a college thing; my entire life philosophy revolves around the concept of more is more. It’s how I write, how I market my writing, how I built my business, how I date, how I make friends, how I figure out the food and media I like; it’s how I get what I want. If something matters to me, I prefer to develop systems to cast as wide a net as possible and then slowly but surely whittle those results down until I’m left with a satisfying conclusion. It’s a messy and often wasteful way to tackle life, but it’s the only one I understand.

So that’s why it always pissed me off so much whenever an adult got all up in my grill about applying to too many schools.

They were, like, angry about it. Like I was breaking some magical rule that every other student knew to obey. Their objections may sound familiar:

You don’t even know what most of these schools offer.

It’s not fair to others to try and get into schools you’re not interested in.

You won’t be able to give each application your full effort.

Eat shit. Last I checked, I was allowed to visit and learn about schools after knowing if I was in or not. That always made a lot more sense to me.

And for the effort part, I was already juggling sports, classes, debate, school, other writing, and playing World of Warcraft twenty hours a week. Why the hell wouldn’t I be able to research schools and then write about them for an hour every night?

And, like, why the “listen here, young whippersnapper” crap now? I didn’t remember those same adults giving me a kiddy-glove slap when I decided to take five Advanced classes in one semester. That was too much work and directly involved me over-extending myself in ways harmful to my well-being, all in direct pursuit of getting into the type of college I wanted. But now I’m out of line for going ham here at the finish line?

I’m proud of 2009 me for ignoring bad adult advice and doing what made sense. And at that time, I didn’t even know I was doing a certain strategy. Or that said strategy had a name. Or that said named strategy would go on to become mainstream 11-14 years later after a controversial shift in how schools handle standardized test scores. But now it’s 2023, and I’m all grown up, and I’m on my own board, and I’m here to spread the good word of shotgunning to children around the globe.

Shotgunning is the only logical solution to modern college admissions

Do you think this process is a lottery? It’s not, but do you? Well, how do you make it more likely to win a lottery? This isn’t a trick question and the answer is quite logical:

You increase your odds of winning a lottery by acquiring as many lottery tickets as possible.

And while college admissions is not a lottery, it certainly has variance. I’ve built a large enough data set through past students thus far that I can reasonably project where they will and won’t get in.

But even my “projecting” student success is based on ranges. It is much easier for me to suggest a student will hit on one or more of USC/Rice/Cornell/Berk/UCLA/Emory/Michigan than it is for me to state which ones will say yes or no. Instead, I can project them at around 20-30% chances of getting into any of them, and in total, they are more likely than not to get into at least one.

So we apply to all of them!!! We have to. It’s the only way to collect dem ticket stubs and revert the math in our favor.

Shotgunning is also a practice that becomes more effective the more you do it

Something magical happens every year with my students and me’s work. It usually involves doing supplemental essays for school five! But first, here’s a recap of what it’s like to get to that point

School 1: Unimaginable suffering and misery

Schools 2-4: Also a bitch. But, like. Not as bad as school one

Schools 5-8: Hey…that’s…that wasn’t so bad! We got Rice done in only one session! Wow, that essay about you saving that cat from that well is getting a lot of play!

Schools 9-Infintiy: M * A * G * I * C

The magic is that we finish ten schools in like two sessions. I mean it. We’re in early December, and both burned out AF, and it kind of seems like we might be screwed on time. But something about the compounding effect of this process makes every school we apply to past a certain point shockingly simple. It’s when essays shift from writing to re-mixing that it all changes.

I don’t think schools want you to know this, but they all ask the same shit. They want to know your academic interests. And a time you were challenged. And a community you belong to. Well, once you answer that for a school, you can just use that same answer for every other school. And you should. Even “Why School” content gets a bit mad-libby after a while. And that’s fine.

Oh ya. Shotgunning feels amazing

A real cleansing of the soul happens when you go into this process fully intending to apply to like 27 schools. At best, you become school-agnostic. Yes, you’ll still have your top choices and ED manifest dreams and all that. But taking a detached, economist view to the process as a whole will help you stay logical and focused towards the real goals here. It will also put you in a position that—assuming you do it right—you will know that you gave yourself the best chance to get into the best college for you. Simply put, I have never once had a student of mine regret how we applied.

OK! Shotguns ready!? Not so fast buck-shot-a-roo.

Shotgunning itself requires strategy. And that strategy begins right around now by building a college list and then preparing to work your ass off for the next six months

Shotgunning can go real bad and real wrong. The major ways that happen are you apply to the wrong schools, are not smart about how you apply to schools, or do not give yourself enough time/energy to complete the task in front of you.

It also gets messy here because there are different difficulty tiers. For simplicity’s sake, this guide will assume you have the application strength and mindset that you could and want to get into a Top-30 school, preferably as prestigious as possible. If you want Princeton but would live with UC Berkeley I GUESS, you’re in the right place. However, I believe any student at any strength looking for any version of success in this process should be able to piece together a plan via my advice.

(The one aspect of admissions I don’t cover much, however, is those hunting scholarships/financial aid. Similarly, shotgunning itself is an expensive endeavor. I feel bad for ignoring such a pertinent part of this process. But also, I’d rather admit I don’t know how to help you than speak out of my ass.)

Here is how I recommend you build a college list:

Figure out what you want

There are really two ways to categorize what you “want.”

The first is PRESTIGE: I’m coming to conclude that at least 20% of why I’ve been successful in this field is I’m the guy willing to tell you that it’s ok to want a school because it’s hard to get into and makes you feel accomplished to go there. That doesn’t make you a bad person. In five years, you’ll be an adult, and significantly fewer adults will similarly try to shame you for wanting a job that’s hard to get because it pays a lot and makes you feel valued for having achieved it. Some will, tho.

A related matter is program strength: This matters much more for those looking Pre-Med even though it’s not a major, Engineering, CS, or finance. Also if you want some exotic major like USC film or Northwestern Journalism. The school name itself is king, however.

And then the third aspect of this is career opportunities coming out of school. This is why I love big state schools, even the “less prestigious” ones. It’s easy to get sucked into the college admissions bubble and convince yourself that employers will have memorized the USNWR rankings as you have. It’s just not the case. I genuinely believe “Ivy Plus” schools do pop on a resume. And then T15-T30 “Ivy Minus” schools also move the needle somewhat. But after that, your best bet is a strong state option/your state’s state option. If you live in Connecticut and then go to UConn and then apply to jobs in Connecticut, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the number of potential employers who go, “my niece goes to UConn! She loves it!” You want that employer’s niece to also be at UConn and to love it.

These three aspects matter the most to me when I’m helping students pick schools. And I promise I’m not fighting them over it. If any of these three factors define what you want in a college, I am writing to you to let you know that you’re allowed to feel that way and should follow that energy.

Buuuuuut, there are other factors at play regarding the schools you pick. I picked Tulane because I wanted to drink alcohol and catch beads.

Here are the non-prestige factors that matter regarding how much you will enjoy your time at a school, ranked by importance.

Weather: Like 85% of America is cold or hot as hell. The difference is you won’t be at school in the summer, so seasonally desolate wastelands like Rice or Tulane turn out to be merely pleasant. If you do not like being cold, I advise against going somewhere where it will be cold.

Surrounding area: You kind of have a few options: Urban, whatever you’d classify UC Davis as, you’ll deal with Yale being kinda far from stuff, middle of nowhere, and middle of nowhere but the school is so huge that it itself feels like a city. Trust your judgement here. If you think you want to live in or near a city, you do. If you think being in the middle of Oregon sounds neato, you will.

Size: Think about the number of students in your current high school. Now multiply that number by 4. That’s a rough estimate of the size of college that will feel most similar to your school now. My high school had 300 kids in it. Ida been right at home at a 1,200 student SLA. But I went to Tulane which was more of a 1,500 -> 6,000 situation.

I don’t think there are 7,000-student high schools, meaning this analogy falls apart for huge state schools. Whatever.

I can tell you that Tulane felt massive even as a “mid-small” university. Unless you want small, I wouldn’t worry too much about how big differebt bigs will feel.

School culture/fit: I have another article coming on my problems with “fit” as a concept in general. Mostly it stems from the fact that “IT’S ALL ABOUT THE RIGHT FIT” tends to be shouted by people who then have very little feedback for you on how to acquire said fit they’re so impassioned. Instead, google “school name” + “niche” and scroll down to the “What one word or phrase best describes the typical student at this school?” + “What one word or phrase best describes your school?” sections. These are a shockingly succinct way to learn what a school is like, good and bad.

Size yourself up

I think “Chance Me” could be useful for this. What you want are ranges. I tend to group schools into three categories:

1) Every school that is easier to get into than NYU:

Go find the average GPA and test scores for the school. If your stats are at or above those numbers, I believe you have a high chance of getting in. You can use data. If you have Naviance, use that data instead. I have been shocked in my career by how tightly X-Y graphs of former results match my students’ actual results. Stats are king.

2) Every school between NYU and Vanderbilt on the USNWR top 50 + most elite SLAs

OK, so you need the perfect stats (3.88+ UW, 1500+ SAT, ~9APs).

But once you have those, I have found that stellar ECs are not required to hit on most of these. Instead, great essays and a tight, consistent application that explains your unique value to their school is often enough.

If I’m gonna get one plug for my services in this piece, this is the range I feel I can provide the most value for students. It’s this “Ivy Minus” range that, over-and-over, I have made work with students holding perfect stats, weak ECs, but then a fun, logical application that makes them stand out. Over-and-over.

3) Vanderbilt to Princeton + Williams/Amherst

Top stats, natty. And the essays and branding also need to be on point. But what I find is that ECs come back into play here. Impressive, Impactful, and Interesting ECs are pretty much required here to break through the glass ceiling. Yes, I plan to write another piece about the 3 Is of ECs. Welcome to College With Mattie Season 3 BTW. I’m PUBLISHING again.

But this is the question to ask yourself: are your ECs logical and cohesive and hopefully related to your future major? Or are they all that and also interesting in their uniqueness, impressive in their results, and/or showcasing a considerable objective impact to others?


Most students I work with have the stats. After that, I tend to assign them to either tier 2 or 3. Like a sorting hat! And, to be fair, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much students seem to both appreciate and agree with my early assessments. The kids who “have the goods” for HYPSM seem to know that, and those that don’t seem thrilled I’m telling them that schools like Rice, Berkeley, or Cornell are still totally in play.

The formal lists we then make tend to be consistent. The ironic group is group 1—the kids without perfect stats. Those lists go all over the place. The weaker an applicant you are, the more viable school options you can access. But often, we focus on keeping them within 1,000 miles of home and applying to every school they are interested in that their stats dictate is in range. But we do so with the intent that heading to the best possible in-state option is probably the goal. It’s mostly Cali kids I do this with, so it’s a lot of Davis/Irvine/UCSD/UCSB/Cal Poly dreamin’. I still like to be aggressive, however.

Here is an example of a group 1 California CS applicant list from last year; acceptances are in bold:

Berkeley, UCLA, Irvine, Davis, UCSB, UCSD, Cal PolyCSU SF, CSU SJ, Purdue, MIT, Texas, Harvey Mudd, CMU, Cornell, Georgia Tech, USC, U-Wash Seattle, Michigan, UVA, Case Western, Northeastern

For group 2, it’s pretty much every school within that 30-15 range they have any interest in + a couple YOLO reaches from the top 16 schools + their state option/UCs + a safety or two or four. The lists here get frizzy at the high and low end. Still, I can not emphasize enough how hard we hit Vanderbilt, WashU, Cornell, Rice, Emory, UCLA, Berkeley, Georgetown, Michigan, Carnegie, UVA, USC, NYU, Texas, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Tufts. Because those are the schools that consistently pay out. It’s just a matter of which ones.

Here is an example of a group 2 Florida Bio applicant list from last year; acceptances are in bold:

Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, YaleVassarRiceBoston CollegeEmoryWashU, Cornell, Swarthmore, UFFSUGeorgetown, Carnegie, Georgia Tech

Group 3 is even more aggressive. With them, it’s usually 10+ of the top 16 schools, then also a good number of 17-30 schools/LACs, their state option/UCs/ and then some weird backups always sneak their way in at the end cause they’re nervous and feel better feeling productive by applying to Reed.

Here is an example of a group 3 Connecticut Bio applicant list from last year; acceptances are in bold:

PrincetonMITYale, Brown PLME, Cornell, Columbia, USCDukeHarvard, Stanford, UVA, Northwestern, Wash UUConnAmherst, Williams,

And here is another example of a group 3 Michigan Poli-Sci applicant list from last year; this one more focused on LAC options as backups:

Berkeley, UCLA, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, Hamilton, Harvard, Pomona, Occidental, Amherst, Williams, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Northwestern, Yale, Swarthmore, Brown, ReedSarah LawrenceLewis and ClarkMichigan

Now, every student is different, and there is always time to add/remove/or tinker as the process moves along. But this is pretty much how I do college lists and how I recommend you set up yours. The key is I always encourage adding, not replacing. There are probably 5+ schools for these students I didn’t list, simply because they were easy acceptances, so I had them crank out and submit on their own. More is more.

…Do…do I seem like a crazy person? Cause I just wrote all that and realized what a hardo I am. But, for reference, the four students listed above are now planning to attend UCSD, Yale, Harvard, and Bowdoin. The Yale and Harvard benefitted from their big-game plays paying out, but the other two still benefitted greatly from shotgunning. Because while neither hit on their top options, it was only by casting a wide net below them that they still hit on a school that they’re happy to attend. Go peep that Bowdoin list again. That was school 18 we applied to, I believe. I am glad we applied to 18+ schools. So is she.

There simply is no way to both be aggressive in this process and, simultaneously, provide yourself the safety net you need without shotgunning. It takes about 18 schools to cover everything you need. It takes about 23 to resolve any doubt.

Establish your “circuit breaker” schools

This is what I replace the concept of backup/reach/match schools with. Come up with 2-4 schools you believe you have a very good chance of getting into and would also like to go to. Take your time!

For me, that would have been any choice between Davis/UCSB/Cal Poly and then also either UWash Seattle. For absolute guarantee I could get in, I had University of San Diego.

Then, when it comes to pick more schools, ask yourself, “Would I rather go here or my circuit breaker school?” That should be your guiding light on where your attention should be applying. Ties = yes. Yes = Yes. Not sure = Yes

If you live in California, the UCs and CSUs make a lot of conventional list-building advice redundant and bad.

The only non-state schools in California I ever plan to send a student to are USC and Stanford. Maybe Occidental if that’s what they want and mayyyyybe Loyola Marymount, but also probs nah.

The reason is there’s no need. One of my favorite schools in the Nation is SJ State. I also love my holy quadrilogy of Davis/Irvine/UCSB/UCSD/Cal Poly. So reliable! Such opportunity! Reasonably priced for what you get!

I just can’t imagine a scenario in which I have a kid applying to somewhere like Chapman or UoP “just in case.” I also won’t be sending them to another school not in California that costs more unless there’s a damn good reason to.

Having such a deep bench of fallback options should encourage you to take more stabs at reaches out of state. But even if you’re in Not-California, trust your in-state options to hold as the net in case of emergency.

OK! We know how to make a list now! And you should do so now, but understand that College lists do not need to be and should not be locked in stone. Instead, get your best guess together and get applying! Oh, now I need to explain how to actually do this.

I have written previously about my overall strategy to applying to college

Reading this and this will clue you in.

This will also clue you in, but less.

But ya, it’s do the UCs, do some kinda-important supplements, convert that content to your personal statement, do your ED/EA/REA supplements, do more supplements in order of difficulty/importance, slowly but surely be writing less and converting more.

The majority of your time and energy should be spent applying to reach schools

Not all applications are created equal.

Go back and read what I wrote above about sub-T30/sub-T12 SLA schools. If your stats are above the school’s averages + you can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t get in, is my opinion as a professional college consultant that you will almost always get in.

Head to r/collegeresults or TikTok or Naviance or Niche and look for yourself. So much college admissions anxiety is based not upon chances at top schools but instead on a misguided fear that the bottom will fall out and you won’t get in anywhere. I allow students to apply to a bunch more safeties, but it’s only so they’ll stop asking about it.

If you still don’t believe me, go watch some college reaction videos. Find me the video of a kid who gets into 2+ T30s but then is also rejected from 2+ non-T30s. Texas/Irvine/UCSD/UCSB/Georgia Tech don’t count those schools are harder. Neither do Tulane/Northeastern those schools are run by grifters.

If you can find such examples, link me to it in the comments and I’ll explain it away like I do anything else that proves me wrong.

(Or apply to as many safeties as you want. If only to make yourself feel better. That’s the magic of shotgunning. You just add more.)

But hold off on those safeties until the end of the process. That’s because you want your best effort placed on the hardest schools. It’s also a fact that harder schools have harder supplements. A lot of the M * A * G * I * C mentioned earlier is only made possible after grinding away at a Stanford supplement early on, only to find that some of the 1,400 words you previously slaved over conveniently also allows you to apply to Purdue.

Use the application process itself to learn about schools and decide how much you’d like to go there

The majority of schools you’re applying to will specifically ask you why. In order to answer that, you will need to dive into what they offer and find out for yourself.

So! Why not be hella efficient about it? Instead of spending hours and hours curtailing your list at the start, instead get right into applying and use the work you’re already doing?

And if what you find doesn’t interest you? Abort! One of my favorite exchanges every year is when students come back to me with their Why School research, but mostly say what they found kinda sucks. Then I excitedly tell them we don’t have to apply at all!

Then they do that high-achieving teen thing where they get all eyebrow furled and mumble, “no I think we still should.” It’s adorable.

Here is a rough grouping of every T30 and T10LAC + a few bonus schools based on how difficult their supplements are:

Very Hard: U Chicago, Harvard, Caltech, Stanford, USC (Viterbi)

Hard: MIT, Penn, Rice, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Pomona, Claremont Mckenna

Hard but their prompts have a lot of overlap with each other and other T-30 schools: Yale, Duke Brown, Princeton, UCs, Carnegie, UVA, USC, Texas, Amherst

Medium: Columbia, Dartmouth, Hopkins, Michigan, NYU, Florida, Boston College, Wellesley, Bowdoin, Carleton, Cornell

Easy: Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Wash U, Tufts, Swarthmore, Georgia Tech

Very Easy/no supplement: Emory, Northeastern, Williams

I’m not sure what the point of this list is, but I wish someone had made it for me, so hopefully, you find it useful in your affairs.

This is all so much easier if you start working now

Ok, not now. But like soon. You actually don’t want to start now. But, like, you can.

All that’s to say is that shotgunning is a harder, more rigorous way of applying to college. But it’s a commendable one, and I have simply seen it pay off too many times ever to trust another methodology.

June 12th is the day I kick off the 2023 essay season with students. I am currently taking on juniors who wish to join at We’re then going hard until New Year’s. That’s because it takes around six months to apply to college the right way, roughly two weeks for each gauge.

– Mattie