How Many Colleges Should We Apply To?

Disclaimer 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.  ]]>

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