How Many Colleges Should You Really Apply To?

Many students stress over the same question: “How many colleges should I apply to?” How many is too many? How few is too few? There is so much disagreement on this topic, even among experts, that many students are left confused and unsure.

This article will give you an idea of how many schools you should apply to and explain the factors to consider when deciding how many colleges to apply to.  After reading this guide, you’ll feel confident about crafting your own college list and how long it will be.

There’s No Magic Number

The number of colleges you should apply to depends on your specific situation.  The standard thinking from counselors has been that the average college-bound student should apply to about 6-8 colleges: 2-3 reach colleges, 2-3 target colleges, and 2 safety schools.  Reach schools are colleges that are unlikely to offer you admission (less than a 30% chance), target schools are colleges that you have a decent chance of gaining admission to (a 30%-80% chance), and safety schools are colleges to which you’re almost guaranteed of admission based on your qualifications (greater than an 80% chance).

However, we have clearly seen a big trend in the number of applications colleges are receiving due to (1) rapidly increasing competition from international students, and (2) the rise in popularity of the Common App makes it simple for one student to easily send one application to many more schools than before.  From our own experiences at Everest Education, we have seen many of our early students from years ago apply to 5-10 schools, while many from our most recent college applicant class applied to more than 20 schools.

The number of colleges you should apply to is dependent on your personal situation and your priorities when selecting a college.  For example, if you have a dream school that offers early decisions or early action, then you may only have to apply to one college.  If you apply early decision, you’ll typically be submitting your application in November and should receive an admissions decision by December, before the application deadlines for most colleges.  If you’re accepted to a school that you apply to early decision, you have to attend.

You should still have a list of colleges to apply to in case you aren’t accepted or if you’re applying to any college, like University of California schools, that have an application deadline before December.  If you’re admitted early decision, you have to withdraw your applications to any other colleges.

Why You May Want To Apply to More Schools

If you’re determined to go to a very selective college, then you may want to apply to more colleges than the average person. If you apply to 10 colleges to which you have a 25% chance of gaining admission, then you’re likely to gain admission to at least one of them. In fact, if you apply to 16 colleges with an average chance of admission of 25%, then you have a 99% chance of gaining admission to at least one of them, statistically.

If you take this approach, though, you should prepare yourself emotionally to be rejected from most of the schools you apply to.  If, on the other hand, you’re not as concerned with selectivity and are extremely confident that you’ll be admitted to at least a couple of the colleges you apply to, you may only need to apply to two to four colleges.

Be Aware of the Costs of Applying in Time and Money

Applying to college can be costly. The application fee for each college you apply to can be up to $75.  However, students with financial hardship should absolutely apply for fee waivers, which will make it easier to apply to enough schools.

Additionally, there can be costs associated with sending standardized test scores and AP scores to colleges. The SAT and ACT allow you to send four free score reports to colleges.  Each additional score report currently costs $11.25 per report for the SAT and $12 per report for the ACT. Also, you’re allowed to send one free AP score report, which contains all of your AP scores, to one college each year you take AP exams.  Each additional score report costs $15.

Therefore, if you apply to 20 colleges, you may have to pay over $2,000.  Consider your budget (or ask your parents how much they’re willing to pay) when deciding how many schools to apply to.  However, you should also view the costs of applying as an investment. If you get into a great college that fits your needs, then you’ll have an invaluable college experience that will enable you to have future professional success, and the money you spend on applying may end up being insignificant compared to the return on your investment.  Furthermore, keep in mind that the cost of applying will probably be much, much less than the cost of attending college.

Additionally, the application process takes time.  Even though more and more colleges are using The Common Application, which allows you to apply to many schools with one application, many colleges still have their own applications or require supplemental essays.  Each college application that requires additional essays will probably take you at least a few additional hours to complete. However, if well-planned, once you cross about 8 applications, you will find patterns in the questions, and you should be able to re-use the vast majority of your essays with slight modifications for each school.

Make sure you have enough time to complete all the applications successfully without sacrificing the quality of your schoolwork or neglecting any other priorities.

Important Rules Regardless of the Number of Colleges You Apply To

Follow these guidelines, regardless of the exact number of schools you end up applying to.

Rule #1: Have at Least 2 Safety Schools
It’s wise to prepare for a worst-case scenario.  If you only get into your safety schools, you still want at least a couple of options to consider.

Rule 2: Don’t Apply to Any Colleges You Wouldn’t Want to Attend
Considering the time and cost associated with applying to college, it’s pretty pointless to apply to a college that you have no desire to attend.  Even if your safety schools aren’t your top choices, they should be colleges that you’d be willing to attend.

Rule 3: Do the Majority of Your College Research Before You Apply
Before applying to college, you should have a good idea of what you’re looking for in a school.  There are about 2,500 4-year colleges. Use college finders, college search websites, guidebooks, ranking lists, and campus visits to help decide which colleges you should apply to.  Also, you can talk to your teachers, counselors, parents, current students, and alumni to help you narrow down your list of schools.

Rule 4: Rank the Schools You Apply to Before You Receive Acceptances
After you apply, continue to do your research and try to rank the schools assuming you were offered admission to all of them.  This will make the selection process easier. Once you receive your acceptances and review your financial aid packages (if you apply for need-based aid), you can factor the cost of attendance for each school into your decision.


Rule 5: Be Realistic About Your Chances of Admission
Even though it’s perfectly fine to apply to reach colleges, at a certain point, a college may be too much of a reach, and you’d be better served to focus on schools that are more likely to admit you.

Usually, if your GPA and standardized test scores are well below those of the average student at a very selective college (less than a 25% acceptance rate), your odds of gaining admission will be extremely low, and in some cases, virtually nil.

For example, in 2014, at Princeton University, only 2% of admitted students had a GPA below a 3.5.  At Yale, out of high schools that provided class rank, 97% of admitted students graduated in the top 10% of their class.

You may still have a realistic chance if there’s something exceptional in your application.  If you’re a world-class athlete, the child of a major donor, or you’ve overcome incredibly unique obstacles, you may still have a legitimate shot at admission with subpar grades and test scores.  Also, if your grades are on par but you have below-average test scores for a selective college, you may still have a shot of getting in, especially if you’re from a disadvantaged or underrepresented background.

Final Advice

While there’s no cap on the number of schools you can apply to, some students, especially those from affluent backgrounds who want to go to a selective college, can consider applying to more than 20 colleges.

If you do the necessary research before you apply, you should be able to limit your list of schools to 25 or fewer.  On the other hand, some students, especially those who are low-income or the first in their families to go to college, often apply to too few colleges. If you don’t have very specific needs that are limiting your college options, and if selectivity is a factor in your college decision, try applying to at least 6 schools.

What’s Next?

Want to build the best possible college application?

We can help. College Compass is a college admissions consulting program for the most ambitious rising Grade 12 students in Saigon who aspire to attend top universities and colleges abroad.  The program is led by the two co-founders of Everest Education, Tony Ngo and Don Le, both of whom graduated from Stanford University and have served as alumni interviewers for Stanford.  We combine world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit, and we want to get you admitted to your dream schools.

Learn more about College Compass to maximize your chance of getting in.  We are now offering scholarships covering 100% of the tuition for the entire College Compass program worth $3,500 each.

Source: PrepScholar Admissions


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