How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?


How many colleges should I apply to? This is an issue of debate in our house.
The number of schools a student applies to depends in part on the student, his or her interests, and the competitive nature of the schools to which he or she is going to apply. For the sake of practicality I usually recommend between 5-10. This allows students to get a good balance of schools and to find a good fit without going overboard.

Highly Selective Schools

However, some students who are applying highly selective schools, the schools with very low admissions rates, may submit more applications.   Admission to Brown, Rice, Duke, Penn, Stanford, Harvard, etc. is hard even if you are the valedictorian and have perfect SAT scores. Because admission rates to these schools are so low, many students add a few extra of these schools to their lists.

Assured Admission

Here’s the balance I like to see: I like to see at least one school where the student is pretty much assured to get in and a school where they’re assured it will be affordable (this may be the same school or a different one). In other words, these are two types of back-up schools – academic and financial.

Mid-Range Admission Options

I like to see a lot of schools in the mid-range. These are schools where admission is possible, but not guaranteed. They’re good fits. These are great schools that match up with the student’s academic abilities and personal strengths.

Long-Shot Admission Options

I always like to throw in a couple of stretch schools.  Those are sort of long shot or reach schools. It’s good to have a challenge, but you can’t have an entire list of hard-to-get-in schools, no matter how strong your qualifications.

How many colleges should I apply to?

Limiting it to ten applications is based on my experience working with students.  More applications require more work, especially in the case of highly selective schools, which require supplemental essays and additional short answers.  Also, families who can’t limit their school list in the fall, have a harder time making a final decision in the spring. Occasionally, I will have students who apply to more than ten schools, but they have specific reasons for keeping each school on the list and I warn them in advance that the process can be exhausting and expensive. I have a colleague who works as an independent college counselor in California and regularly has clients apply to 15-20 colleges.  Her philosophy is that the more choices her clients have, the better.  A student applying to twenty schools may have 5-15 schools to choose from once acceptance letters arrive. Personally, I’d prefer do some of the decision-making up front and limit the number of applications.  If you begin visiting colleges early and take time to research your options, you should be able to find a good balance in the schools to which you apply.   What would you suggest?  How do you answer “How many colleges should I apply to?”    

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