You are looking for seven colleges to apply to. You can do more, but it takes time to fill out the applications, do the essays, round up recommendation letters, and in addition to the time, each application requires an application fee ranging up to $70. This means you are going to be limited to the number of colleges that you will be able to apply to.
The object is to choose 2 colleges that are considered reach colleges, 3 colleges that are matches and 2 colleges that are safety colleges. A safety college is a college where you will get in easily. Your grades and test scores are far above the averages posted for that college. Note: these averages have been rising recently as more students have been chasing fewer freshman slots, so give yourself some wiggle room by going far above the averages posted for that school. A match college is exactly as it sounds. Your grades are about where the average scores are for that college. A reach college is a college where you are slightly below the average scores for that college. Reach colleges are where we run into trouble.
Some people use the word dream college in place of reach college. The reason I like the term reach college is that we are talking about a stretch, but not an unreachable chasm. If you have a 3.1 GPA, then a reach college is one that has an average no greater than 3.5. Do you see where I am going? Some websites will delineate the percentages of students who have each level of grades.
Collegeboard.org does a great job of this and in my opinion is the best place to get college data for score ranges.
While I was watching the swimming qualifiers for the 2012 Olympics. One female swimmer who qualified was in the process of applying to colleges. Listen, anyone who is good enough to qualify for the Olympics should have no problem getting a full-ride scholarship from a college. After the race a commentator asked her if the colleges were leaving her alone. She responded that they were being good. I don’t know how good her grades are, and grades are important to colleges, but she will not need to score on the higher range of the academic scale.
The low end of the range is often reserved for special status students. This is important when thinking about applying to a reach college. You must have something to offer them because your grades are not in the highest range of what they accept. You should investigate which things each college values and apply to reach schools who value the type of experiences that you have. In this way a reach college can become closer to a match college, and your chances for getting into that college increase.