How Many Colleges Should We Apply To?

This is a frustrating time of year for many high school seniors and their families. Some college applications are sent, but in many cases the process isn’t finished.

Should you send a couple more applications in case the ones already submitted are met with rejection? Have you covered all possibilities with the schools currently on your list? Did you really do enough research? How many is too many? What’s not enough?

If you are the parent of a senior (or have sent another student off to college before) you know how these questions can contribute to the stress of application season. If your child isn’t a senior yet, you can learn how to manage the college list and side-step some of this doubt.


There is no exact number of colleges each student should apply to. For every suggestion I will give, I’ve worked with a student who was an exception to that rule.

Every student and every family is different. Use these guidelines to inform your process, but feel free to adapt them to your individual situation.

Schools I Insist You Have On Your List

I want every client to have at least one of each of these schools on his or her list. Sometimes a single college can satisfy more than one category; think of that as a bonus.

Assured Admission

This is the college where you are certain (or almost certain) your student will get in. For a school to fit in this category, you need admission data showing the degree of certainty based on your specific academic credentials.

I live in Texas. Our state has a current policy by which graduates in the top 10% of their class are guaranteed admission to state universities (except UT Austin which automatically accepts the top 6%.) A student in the top of his or her class could consider one of these universities under the assured admission category.

What if my student doesn’t have top grades?

Students in the bottom of their classes have to work a little harder to find assured admissions options, but there are plenty of four-year options available. A few years ago I worked with a young man who was in the bottom quarter of his graduating class. He was a hard working student, but struggled with learning differences and had made a few mistakes along the way. He found assured admission (and a college he loved) at West Texas A&M University. For fall 2018 admission, a student in the bottom quarter of his or her class needs a GPA of 2.0 and an ACT of 23 (SAT 1130) for automatic admission. You can see their admissions policies here.

In some cases your local community college may serve as an assured admission option.

There are assured options for every applicant.

In-State (Affordable) Tuition

The next school to have on your list is the affordable option. I understand that the term “affordable” is relative. When finding a college to satisfy this criteria, you are looking for schools with the most manageable costs.

For many families this means keeping one or two state universities on the list. The in-state costs are far lower than those at private colleges. However, in-state expenses can be $20K-$25K per year once you include fees, housing, and a meal plan. Take time to research the least expensive in-state universities. You can make an even more affordable option by living at home while taking courses at a nearby university or community college. Know your financial situation and find an option that is manageable.

A word of caution.

Don’t skip this category because you feel financially comfortable and think you don’t need to limit your student’s choices. I have seen too many good situations go wrong between fall of a student’s senior year and graduation: death of the primary breadwinner, unexpected financial disasters (think Enron or major market crashes), a serious medical diagnosis that both takes a parent out of work and begins draining the family’s resources by tens of thousands of dollars a month, and situations that could only be described as bizarre.

A professional colleague of mine worked with a young lady who applied only to private schools and didn’t even think about cost because her father was quite wealthy. The parents were divorced, but mom received a five-figure alimony payment each month, so it seemed reasonable to assume the cost of college wasn’t going to be an issue. Just before this young lady was to graduate, her father was charged with financial wrongdoing and all the family’s assets were frozen. Suddenly there was an immediate need for an affordable option.

Plan for a worst-case scenario and keep an affordable college on your college list.

Good Fit Schools

This category is a little broader than the previous two. These schools are a good fit academically, socially, financially, geographically, etc. Admission isn’t assured, but is possible. The costs isn’t necessarily affordable, but the family has agreed to wait and see what type of scholarships or financial aid will be awarded.

Good fit schools are “maybes” in all areas— providing everything goes right. In most cases, these are the schools my clients eventually choose to attend. But we have provided for a worst case scenario by including the affordable and assured admission options.

Typically students will have 3-6 schools that meet the good fit criteria.

Unlikely, But Wouldn’t It Be Great Options

I’ve sometimes referred to these schools as long shots– the colleges where the possibility of admission (or affordability) is unlikely, but a slim possibility exists. I think every student should stretch his or her options and dream a little. Find one or two schools that would be great alternatives IF you beat the odds.

Like everything else in college admissions, this category means different schools for different students. The student in the top 2% of her class may view The University of Texas at Austin as an assured admission option while the top 30% graduate classifies that same school as a long-shot for admissions purposes. Do your research and be realistic as you determine which schools fit the “unlikely” category.

Some bad news for top students.

Any college or university that admits fewer than 20% of its applicants MUST be classified as an unlikely option. I don’t care if your student is the valedictorian with a perfect SAT score; these hard to get in schools turn down perfect score valedictorians every year. (Think about it; there are not enough spots in the entire Ivy League’s entering freshman classes to accommodate all of the valedictorians from a given year.) So students interested in these highly selective schools must have a few good fit and assured admission options BEFORE adding all of the hard-to-get-in schools to their lists.

One last thought for those considering the highly selective schools— adding more “unlikely” schools to your list does NOT improve your chances of getting in.

Let’s say I really want to get into one of these prestigious institutions and I decided to apply to a number of top schools:

  • Stanford, Harvard, and Yale (admission rates 5-6%)
  • Columbia, MIT, and Princeton (7% of applicants admitted)
  • Brown, Penn, Duke, Pomona, Amherst, Cornell, Rice, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley (8% – 16%)

Too many families fall into faulty math in these situations. They think that by adding up all the acceptance rates (138% in my case) they have guaranteed admission to least one of these schools. But math doesn’t work that way! Instead of a better than 100% chance of admission based on my list above, I have a 16% chance– at best.

If you want to apply to a handful of “unlikely” schools, go for it. I work with many top students who succeed in this process each year. But after the first couple applications are sent to schools on the hard-to-get-in list, I insist my clients take a break and apply to their assured admission and affordable options.

It is good to dream about schools that might stretch your abilities; just don’t ignore reality.

Quick Summary

Every student should apply to a mix of school with a list that includes:

  • 1-2 assured admission options
  • 1-2 affordable tuition schools
  • 3-6 good fit colleges
  • 1 or more unlikely, but great options

This means most of my clients are applying to 5 to 10 schools. My clients who are looking at a number of highly selective schools tend to submit 10 to 12 applications.


I have worked with enough students over the years to have seen exceptions. A notable one was the client who applied to only one school. This young man was interested in business, ranked in the top 2% of his high school class, and earned top SAT scores (720 Reading and 800 Math). We spent multiple sessions discussing colleges with unique and exceptional business programs. He kept coming back to UT Austin. His older brother and sister attended UT and his father had a successful CPA firm in the Austin area. He couldn’t picture himself going to college anywhere else.

UT was his only application. He was assured admission and the in-state tuition made it affordable. The business school at UT was his best fit, dream program. His “unlikely” option was the UT Business Honors Program where he was initially wait-listed, but was ultimately accepted.

You may find your unique situation involves some exceptions to my above recommendations too, as long as your ideal option overlaps with your affordable and assured admission plans.

Limit The List Now

It is hard to decide. I know; I have a current junior with a list of 25 colleges that seems to grow each time we get the mail.

Do we really have to limit ourselves to 10-12 applications?

In theory, no. But from practical experience, more than 12 applications becomes exhausting. First, most of the highly selective colleges require additional supplementary responses. After six of these extra essays with short answers, students fatigue. At some point parents get tired of paying $50 – $80 for each application.

Even if a student could easily apply to 20+ colleges, the process doesn’t get easier. By May 1 a decision has to be made. If this student can’t cut the list of colleges down to his or her top 12, choosing from the multiple schools where he or she has been admitted becomes a painful task. Limit your list now and the decision process will be easier in the spring.


I started by saying there is no exact number of schools to which a student should apply. Every student and every family is different. I advise my clients to use these guidelines and settle on 5-12 schools that best fit their goals. Feel free to adapt these guidelines to your individual situation.


SAT and ACT “Extras” That Are Worth Paying For

Should you pay for the SAT Student Response Service (SRS) or Question Answer Service (QAS) or ACT Test Information Release (TIR)?

There are a lot of options to add to your cart when registering for the SAT or ACT. I skip over most of them, but there are a few items I consider essential.

The other day I spent 20 minutes on the College Board website registering my daughter for another SAT. “Another” is important because most of her personal information was already saved in the system. But I had to click through page after page of classes taken, extracurricular, and potential college majors / activities before I could sign her up for the December exam. Once I made it to the screen where I could add the test, I was ready to finish and pay. Good thing I knew what to look for because there were a few extra items I needed to add to our order.

When registering for the SAT or ACT there are so many add-on extras it is tempting to skip them all and complete your check out. But there are a few item you should get. Some are just good tools, while others could be essential.

+Writing (The Optional Essay)

Starting in 2016 the written essays became optional on both the SAT and ACT. These “draft” writings completed at the end of the multiple-choice exams do not affect a student’s overall score on either test.

So, why should you care?

Some colleges and universities still require students to have the written portion of the exam. I’ll admit, these schools are in the minority. In the past couple years, more and more colleges have dropped the optional essay writing requirement. But if you want to apply to a school (or program) that requires the essay, they may choose to only evaluate scores from exams that have the written essay.

My daughter is a junior. We have a tentative list of colleges, but nothing final. So far none of her schools require the written essay, but she may add a school in the next 12 months that does. It would be a shame for her to get the score improvement she desires from the December SAT and not be able to use those results at a particular school because she didn’t do the essay. So I added the essay to our order.

I strongly recommend all juniors take the written essay with every SAT or ACT. Seniors who have a final list of colleges can skip the essay if they know that every single college, scholarship, or honors program does NOT require it.

Student Answers

Students always receive scores, but will not know which questions they got right or wrong unless you pay extra. (Of course you have to pay extra for this! Sometimes it feels like the entire college admission process involves paying extra.)

Why do you want student answers?

Unless you have the rare student who is going to take the ACT or SAT once and be satisfied with his or her scores, you should expect this will not be the last testing attempt. Most students take their test of choice 2-3 times.

Finding out which problems a student missed can go a long way for future score improvement. I have two students I helped prepare for the August SAT who got very similar scores on the math portion of the test– 670 and 680. Just looking at the scores you might think these students need to work on similar things (probably the hard questions) to make it to their goals of 700+ in math. But the Student Answer Service reports told two very different stories:

  • One student missed only the difficult questions in both calculator and no-calculator math. She missed multiple-choice and grid-in questions– but only the hard problems.
  • The other student got the hardest questions right. His errors came throughout the math section (easy, medium, and a few hard problems.) A majority of his errors were in the last section– calculator permitted math.

My suggestions for the first student involve practice with the harder question types and work on pacing, so she has the time she needs on the more difficult questions. The second student knows the math and is very familiar with the hard problem types; his issue is focus and endurance. Particularly in section four, he is losing focus, making careless errors on easier questions, and needs to work on strategies to improve accuracy. Without the question-level feedback these students wouldn’t know what to do as they prepare to retest.

Test Questions

The best feedback comes from having the most information. A few times a year, students can order a copy of the SAT exam questions. They don’t get their own test booklet back, but they do get a copy of the entire exam to go along with the list of questions they missed.

When available, I strongly encourage you order this. It usually takes 6 to 8 weeks to receive the copy of the questions, so plan to wait a few weeks before you can utilize this information.


Notes on What to Order

Of course we have some more admissions alphabet-soup when trying to order the items mentioned above. Here’s some info to help you decode the process:


SAT with Essay — Student can add (or drop) the essay up to the time of the exam. There is no late fee to add the essay; students just pay the extra $14 (for a total of $60) to take the written portion.

Test Questions — (QAS) Questions-and-Answer Service. You will receive BOTH a detailed report of which questions your student missed AND a copy of the test questions. For 2017-18 this is available for the Oct, March, and May exams given in the U.S. and costs $18.00.

Student Answers— (SAS) Student Answer Service. You will receive a question-by-question printout showing which problems were missed, difficulty level, and sub-score / cross-test info. This is available in Aug., Nov., Dec., and June (and international dates that don’t offer QAS) and costs $13.50.

QAS and SAS can be ordered after the exam is taken, so log into your College-Board account and order one for your last test if you didn’t already. (Usually there is a three-month limit on ordering, so don’t wait too long.)


ACT with Writing — Student can add (or drop) the essay up to the late registration deadline for that exam. If a student decided to add the writing after the late registration deadline, he or she must notify the test center coordinator on the day of the test; availability will depend on the amount of extra writing booklets (a lot like flying standby.) Students pay the extra $16.50 (for a total of $62.50) to take the written portion.

Test Questions — (TIR) Test Information Release. You will receive BOTH a detailed report of which questions your student missed AND a copy of the test questions. For 2017-18 this is available for the Dec., April, and June exams given in the U.S. and costs $20.00.

Student Answers — Unlike College Board, ACT doesn’t offer a separate answer return service on test dates not covered by the TIR option.


Technology That Makes College Life Easier

(No more rolls of coins-- just swipe your campus ID.)

(No more rolls of coins– just swipe your campus ID.)

If you’ve been on a college tour recently, you will see that life isn’t the same as it was a few decades ago when I was living in the dorms. Here are some fun and useful innovations you will see on many college campuses.

High-Tech Laundry

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGone are the days of spending all day trying to wash clothes—waiting in the laundry room, hoping a free machine will open up, debating whether you should take out the dry clothes from the machine (and if you do, do you need to fold them???).

Dormitory laundries have gone high tech. Machines can send texts to students when a load is ready or alert you when a machine is available.

Students used to arrive at college with rolls of quarters for the laundry machines, but today’s student only needs to swipe his or her student ID card to charge the laundry fee to his or her campus account.

Zip Cars

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving a car at college can be convenient, but it can also be prohibitively expensive in some places. Students who want to use a car for a quick trip to the store or weekend getaway can use a Zipcar®.

Zipcars, which are found on many college campuses, can be rented by the hour or the day. Unlike traditional rental car companies that restrict rentals to drivers under 25, Zipcars, complete with insurance, are available on many college campuses for students to drive. After completing an online application, an approved student can reserve one of the campus Zipcars at any time he or she needs to use one.

Digital Textbook Options

In the past, students were at the mercy of the campus bookstore (and bookstore prices!). Today’s students have an array of better options—electronic textbooks, textbook rentals, and online shopping at retailers such as Amazon.

In addition, e-readers such as Kindles, Nooks, and iPads allow students to store all of their textbooks on a single electronic device, reducing space required for books and saving money at the same time.

Keep in mind that sometimes you will want to have the actual book, rather than its electronic counterpart. Reading novels from your tablet is fine, but trying to flip back and forth to the charts or formulas in a textbook can be challenging.

Networked Wireless Campus

Most students are accustomed to using wireless networks in coffee shops, campus housing, and academic buildings. Having Wi-Fi available across campus means students can study when and where they want.

Campus printers are also networked at most schools, so a student can print a paper in her dorm, the library, or the science lab.

In addition, students can access library resources from across campus, taking advantage of the thousand of materials available online. You may no longer need to sorry about library hours if everything you need is available online 24/7.

Cell Phones and Apps

Most high school students already enjoy the benefits of cell phones, particularly smart phones capable of supporting apps. Because cell phones are so pervasive, students no longer need to worry about setting up a phone line in the dorm or taking messages for a roommate. Parents can enjoy the affordability and flexibility of calling plans.

Students will find a variety of apps that make college life easier, including homework trackers, flashcards for a variety of subjects, organizers, alarm clocks, and fun distractions.

Dining Plan Flexibility

Most colleges have linked students’ dining plans and credits to student ID cards. Historically, these dining credits could only be used in on-campus dining halls during specific hours, but today’s credits can be used across campus at any time. Students now may swipe ID cards at vending machines in the dorms or academic buildings; and some colleges even have agreements with local restaurants, which allow students to spend dining credits off campus.


On campus tours, parents often are amazed by the new innovations that make college life easier for students. Some are conveniences designed to save time and minimize frustration. Others are perks that make life on campus more comfortable. As technology continues to develop, college students will benefit from new innovations.



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